x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Stress takes its toll on the young

Loneliness, stress and a lack of a support network can lead to people drinking more.

DUBAI // Loneliness, work stress and the lack of a support network have led to an increase in people in their 20s and 30s seeking professional counselling for excessive drinking.

Five years ago, most of those Johanna Griffin saw at Dubai's LifeWorks counselling centre were in their 40s and 50s. The number of younger people approaching her for help has doubled since then, she says.

Mrs Griffin, who trained at Imperial College, London, and has 20 years' experience as a specialist drug and alcohol counsellor, is considering setting up a support group to help those affected.

"The average age has gone down," she said. "I'm definitely seeing more people in their 20s and 30s, and even some teenagers. I see people from every single culture living in Dubai.

"Also, I'm seeing more people suffering medical effects from their drinking - cirrhosis and other liver problems, pancreatitis, memory blackouts, stroke and panic attacks."

Mrs Griffin has identified factors that have led to the increase in alcohol abuse.

"Sometimes it's stress related to work, and the economic crisis has probably affected quite a few people," she said.

"There's also a problem with isolation. I think a lot of people are quite lonely in Dubai. Some find it hard to get support, and [the population is] very transient.

"Some young people come out here, they get quite good jobs but they're quite stressful jobs. They have a feeling that they're on their own and sometimes they then gravitate to drinking places.

"We all know about the brunches and the binge drinking that is quite a problem at certain places. Some people here go binge drinking for three or four days."

Mrs Griffin said heavy drinking had serious social consequences, including aggression and accidents, and could affect employment.

Alcohol reduces the effects of some prescription medicines and in extreme cases can cause death.

"The other side of it is vulnerability, particularly with young people," she added. "They can be abused or attacked if they're drunk."

Mrs Griffin said people should reduce the importance of alcohol in their lives by doing other things in their free time, such as pursuing hobbies and exercising.

They should also take responsibility for their actions instead of blaming their drinking on others, and stand up to social pressure.

Meanwhile, a psychologist has discovered that patterns of binge drinking among teenagers in Dubai follow those of their peers in their home countries.

Dr Annie Crookes, head of psychology at Heriot-Watt University's Dubai campus, surveyed 400 students aged between 16 and 19 at five English-speaking schools.

The study into alcohol and tobacco use was the first of its kind in the UAE, and Dr Crookes is preparing to publish her findings.

"I discovered that binge drinking among young people is as chronic here as it would be if they were still in the UK, or Europe or wherever their home countries are," she said. "They're getting hold of alcohol quite easily despite the restrictions."

Dr Crookes said the overall incidence of alcohol use was slightly lower among teenagers in the UAE compared with figures from studies carried out in the UK and other countries.

"However, when you break that down into nationalities it very much follows what you'd expect," she said. "The British and European kids drank a lot, and they binge drank, and the Americans and other nationalities didn't do as much.

"So even within a restricted country, even though some of these kids grew up here and on average half of them spent half their lives outside their home country, the cultural values towards drinking pulled through."

csimpson@thenational.ae