Worry over young binge-drinkers

More people are seeking help over alcohol abuse

In Singapore, 18.7 per cent of men and 12.2 per cent of women aged 18 to 29 binge drink, which is defined as having fouror more alcoholic drinks in one session for women, and five or more for men. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

HE DRANK till he blacked out. Then he drank some more.

Yet scientist Thomas Tan (not his real name) reached for the bottle time and again.

Like many alcoholics, Mr Tan began drinking in his teens, "after we booked out of army on weekends and partied".

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    According to the Health Promotion Board's guidelines, women should drink no more than one standard drink a day and men should limit themselves to two standard drinks a day. A standard alcoholic drink contains 10g of alcohol, and this can be estimated to be one can (330ml) of regular beer, half a glass (175ml) of wine or one nip (35ml) of spirits.

    Despite the common belief that alcohol addicts drink every day, this is not always the case, said National Addictions Management Service counsellor Tan Ming Hui. But during drinking episodes, they drink heavily which may lead to trouble.

    Psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow said: "When you find that your friend often drinks till he blacks out, reads with horror the e-mails that he sent off the previous day or can't remember what he did, or if he has to hide his frequent drinking from friends and family, seek help."

    If you or a loved one needs help, call:

    Alcoholics Anonymous Singapore: 9053-1764; or

    National Addictions Management Service: 6732-6837

"I was shy and introverted, but alcohol transformed me into the life of the party," he said.

The drinking continued into his 20s, where alcohol would help him unwind and was a reward after a long, hard week.

"But after a few drinks, the more dislikeable side of me came out," the 38-year-old said. "I was sarcastic, I character-assassinated my friends and they stopped hanging out with me."

At his worst, he could down an entire bottle of hard liquor in a day, but he did not see a problem.

"I was still functional; there was no complaint about my work," said Mr Tan.

Things went downhill from there. Without friends, he drank alone at home. In his late 20s, he went on binge-drinking sessions to cope with pressures of failing his doctoral studies.

"I went from blackout to blackout."

Luckily for Mr Tan, he got help in time at Alcoholics Anonymous Singapore (AA). He went through a programme which has since helped him stay dry for three years.

With more people here turning to the bottle, drinking harder and starting younger, more alcoholics are also seeking help for their drinking problems, with psychiatrists or fellowships like AA.

At Singapore's largest addiction treatment centre, the National Addictions Management Service (Nams), counsellors saw 433 new cases from April last year to this March, compared with 415 cases a year earlier.

Private psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow, known for his work in addictions, saw one new case of alcohol abuse a week four years ago. But now he sees two to three new cases.

Psychiatrist Thomas Lee estimated there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of alcohol abuse cases he has seen in the past three years.

Some patients are dragged to clinics by a family member, while others sign up voluntarily.

At Nams and psychiatric clinics, many who seek help are aged 45 and above. But this could be after years of drinking.

Dr Winslow, former chief of the Institute of Mental Health's addiction medicine department, said: "They seek help simply because they have drunk long enough and hard enough to know they have a problem."

Nams counsellor Tan Ming Hui said: "Some also suffer falls, incur drinking debt and fail in their family responsibilities, which complicates the situation."

What psychiatrists are most concerned about is the growing number of binge-drinkers in their teens and 20s.

"Many of them have not hit rock bottom or felt the full impact of their drinking, so they don't come forward," noted Dr Lee.

"They can still function normally at work so they don't think they have a problem."

Teenage girls who binge drink, warned Dr Winslow, may "accept pills that they may not accept when they are sober or engage in unprotected sex".

Nams' Ms Tan is particularly worried about teenagers and young adults who binge drink continuously. This is because it is especially harmful for their developing brain, which can make them "vulnerable to developing addiction" and affect their thinking abilities later in life.

In Singapore, 18.7 per cent of men and 12.2 per cent of women aged 18 to 29 binge drink, which is defined as having four or more alcoholic drinks in one session for women, and five or more for men.

Many start drinking in their 20s as this is when they have their first disposable income, said Dr Winslow.

"It's not only health problems. They get into fights or engage in drink driving. Or they black out and wake up in a stranger's bed, not remembering what they had done the night before," he added.

What is worse, some alcoholics mix booze with other drugs like sleeping pills to achieve "a multiplier effect".

"They wake up in a bad hangover, or sometimes never at all."

Help is at hand for alcoholics in Singapore, said the professionals, but first, they have to recognise they have a problem.

For Mr Tan, alarm bells rang when he got so unwell that he would vomit after drinking half a bottle of wine.

"I would throw up, drink and throw up again," he said. "I knew that drinking was a futile exercise, but I could not stop my mental obsession with alcohol."

He finally went through AA's 12-step self-awareness programme. Being with other recovering alcoholics helped too.

"It's one drunk talking to another; we understand each other's difficulties," he said.

Though he had to go "cold turkey" and endure shakes and seizures, it was worth it, he said.

"I don't go to places that serve alcohol unless there is an occasion, like celebrating a friend's birthday."

Mr Tan, who now works as a biomedical researcher and exercises three times a week, added: "I was on the brink, but I'm glad I chose the right path. I've got a clean bill of health. I am truly happier now."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline Worry over young binge-drinkers. Subscribe