This week, newly released figures painted a stark picture of the relationship people in this country have with one of the deadliest drugs of all – alcohol.
On Monday, the Health Research Board made the announcement that more than 56,000 people here were treated for problem alcohol use between 2009 and 2015.
Roughly two thirds of those who were treated were male, and the average age of those treated was 41.
Some 40% of those treated across the six-year period were admitted to residential facilities such as Tabor Lodge – a Belgooly-based centre which helps people suffering from addiction.
While the facility tends to admit people from all across the Munster region, the vast majority of clients they treat are resident in Cork.
Clinical director of the rehabilitation centre, Mick Devine, said he is not surprised to hear the latest figures from the Health Research Board in relation to alcohol issues.
In fact, he said, the stats mirror trends he has seen at Tabor Lodge over the last few years.
“As a country I think we have a huge problem with alcohol. Currently, we have around 77,000 alcohol dependent people in Ireland. Those are the statistics.”
He argued that the alcohol industry needs to be far more strictly regulated than it currently is. In particular, he said, the Government needs to step in and finally enact the Public Health Alcohol Bill.
The yet-to-be-enacted piece of legislation was initially put forward in 2015 by Leo Varadkar during his time as Health Minister but has long since been delayed.
Crucially, the bill would include a major clamp down on the advertising of alcohol, including restrictions on drinks companies being able to sponsor major festivals and sporting events.
“The alcohol industry sponsoring sporting events or other entertainment events is establishing a link between alcohol and those events that we really need to start questioning. Through this sponsorship, alcohol gets presented as something that enhances a good time,” said Mick.
“But alcohol is a substance that is incredibly potent and it needs to be treated differently to other industries or other products because it’s highly addictive, highly mood altering, and is being used medicinally by people who have a lot of problems and struggles and maybe mental health challenges. This idea that alcohol is needed to have a good time – it’s not helping.”
Currently, 73% of people who access the services of Tabor Lodge do so because they have issues with alcohol.
Typically, however, people only seek help after some dramatic event has taken place – perhaps a fight with a spouse, or finding themselves in financial ruin, or having their children taken away from them.
Entering Tabor Lodge is the often first step towards recovery for many people.
The centre offers clients a 28-day residential programme that aims to show them how best to manage their addiction.
While some choose leave before this timeframe is over, the vast majority complete the programme. If they feel they have not completed their journey after 28-days, clients can then enter Fellowship House (for men) or Renewal (for women).
Also run by the overarching Tabor Group, these are residential facilities based in Cork city to help people who need extra support over a longer time period. Clients can stay in these facilities for an additional three months.
Mick said that throughout the services he sees a lot of people in denial about their addiction – it is a strong feeling for people to overcome.
“You could could have a situation where people could be here in Tabor Lodge for a number of days and still not accept that there's a problem. And then all of a sudden they might realise it. It could be something somebody says in a group situation that makes them stop and realise what has been going on. That lightbulb moment,” he said.
“It's a real treatment success if people come to the point of realising they do have a problem. Then they are more willing to take it seriously and are more willing to ask for help.”
Whatever their initial level of acceptance, and whatever the nature of their addiction, all residents follow roughly the same daily routine.
They wake at 7:15am, have breakfast, and take part in meditation. At around midday residents will take part in a study of literature relating to addiction. After lunch, clients either have one-to-one therapy or group therapy, followed by a lecture on addiction.
This lecture session, explains Mick, is invaluable. Quite often the 'lightbulb moment' will stem from something discussed here.
“People can listen to the lectures in a non-threatened kind of way. At first it's just interesting information, and then maybe they realise that it's actually interesting information about something that's very personal to them,” he said.
“There's greater cooperation after that lightbulb moment happens. They become more open, more willing, more of a kind of person who asks for help rather than a person who shuts people out. It's very simple but it can be a huge change in people's lives. The moment of realisation... it can have a hugely transformative effect.”
He stressed that help is there for anyone who wants it - and that people have credited the facility with helping them to go on and live full, happy, and sober lives.
“I ran into a woman the other day in the supermarket. She was at the facility more than ten years ago,” said Mick.
“She was going into work drunk and falling asleep at her desk. She understood she was going to be fired. But she’s turned it around and got a promotion, got divorced, and is now pursuing her career goals.”
Not everyone’s story is like this, however. Some people need to return to Tabor Lodge a number of times for treatment having relapsed into old ways.
“Earlier on in the week I got a phone call from a man who was here more than ten years ago, the same year that other woman was here, actually,” said Mick.
“But his story is different. He now he needs more help with his addiction. He has just been put off the road. And he’s still not sure that he needs treatment. He’s still not sure that he’s addicted. He needs more help.”
For more information about the Tabor Group and its services, go to www.taborgroup.ie. To access help for addiction from the Tabor Group, phone 021 488 7110 or email email@example.com.
Currently, experts at Tabor Lodge are exploring connections between addiction and childhood trauma.
They are using a tool called ACE – Adverse Childhood Experiences. As part of this, clients who are experiencing addiction are asked a series of ten questions.
Some of them include: Did you ever experience domestic abuse? Did you ever experience mental health problems in an adult in your family? Was someone in your family in prison? Were you sexually abuse? Were you emotionally neglected?
“If people are answering yes to four or more of those, their chances of experiencing addiction later in life is twelve-fold,” revealed Mick Devine, clinical director of Tabor Lodge.
“We also have a piece of research where staff here worked with 50 people and conducted this ACE assessment and then a student from UCC analysed the data. In total, 40% had four or more ACEs. So there is a definite connection.”
Mick explained that a lot of people who find themselves addicted to a substance experienced trauma in their youth.
“Someone has grown up in an environment where their needs were not met, where they were neglected, they find it hard to cope with the business of day-to-day life in schools or in a social setting or in the world of work or university… and they discover a substance that has mood altering properties and they suddenly start to feel better inside,” he said.
“The prevalence of the use of this then increases and they slip from mild dependency into moderate and finally severe.”
While there are, of course, hangovers and downers after taking alcohol and drugs, Mick said people who are addicted to such substances tend to take more of their preferred substance to alleviate these effects – thus perpetuating the cycle and making their addiction worse.
When someone does eventually seek help, however, Mick said there is a very short window of time in which they need to get someone into the service.
“A person would email in, or make a call, and we would make phone contact with them straight away. It’s all about getting to them straight away. The quicker we can get somebody talking to us the better. Because they could send an email in the middle of the night and by the following morning they might have changed their minds about accessing treatment,” he said.
“The window of opportunity is only open for a very brief amount of time. Overnight a person might get cold feet. So our present procedure is that we take the call in admin and then we get a clinical person to phone back as soon as possible so that the assessment process can almost begin on the phone. The shorter the time between those two calls, the better.”