Today, I marvelled at a website service. I’m a citizen of the Federal Republic of Germany. I’ve been living in Sweden for more than nine years now. Those are the countries I usually deal with when it comes to parliamentary processes, bills and policy issues. But today I found myself marvelling at the website and the service of the House of Commons, the lower house of the UK Parliament.
I thought it’s fantastic that I can sit in Stockholm and watch how representatives of the British people are debating an issue I deeply care about.
And that is in fact the real story of this blog post: a committee in the House of Commons assembled to discuss a motion to support children of alcoholics. The motion was tabled by Labour MP Liam Byrne and had six co-sponsors from four political parties. You can read the entire motion in the news feed story on this website.
Introducing the motion, the primary sponsor MP Byrne, held a powerful, moving and memorable speech – also mentioning his own story of living with a dad who was addicted to alcohol:
Children of alcoholics are one of the forgotten victims of someone else’s alcohol use. All too often they do remain invisible and alone – and MP Byrne has alluded to this fact a few times during his parliamentary speech.
I often notice that when alcohol harm is addressed in societies around the world, the focus is on imminent public health problems and the economic costs. Rarely to decision-makers steer the focus to the social harm of alcohol, the harm to others. And so, rarely there’s a policy window to address the need of children of alcoholics, even though they do constitute a large group and they do have important needs for society to care about:
- Children of alcoholics are five times more likely to develop an eating disorder.
- Children of alcoholics are three times more likely to commit suicide.
- Children of alcoholics are almost four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.
I feel inspired and touched by MP Byrne in particular. He has used his own story of pain and suffering not to cater to his own ego but to bring attention to a disregarded public health crisis and immense societal problems: children who suffer from their parents alcohol use disorders.
Interdependent aspects of massive societal problem
But in following the parliamentary debate and in contemplating the proposed ten point plan, I also found that still some crucial issues were lacking.
When we talk about children of alcoholics, we usually mention four aspects that make up the severity of the problem:
- The stigma, stereotypes and the associated taboo that still is attached to alcoholism and to living with parents who have alcohol use disorder.
- The problem of not being able or being only inadequately able to identify children of alcoholics.
- The challenges in providing effective and sufficient services to these vulnerable children.
- The need to provide help for parents with alcohol use disorders, like treatment programs that help the entire family.
In IOGT International, we are working on all of these four aspects. We make efforts to start a conversation in society – for example now during the month of December when several of our Member Organizations run the White Christmas campaign. We work to empower social services, teachers and local leaders to recognise symptoms of children of alcoholics and try to empower them to address the issue. Many of our Member Organizations do provide services themselves: from helplines and web-based information, to self-help groups and counselling, to social events in save and enabling settings. And we deal with treatment and rehabilitation in the our Family Club approach.
We can do more and we can do better, I think. And so, it’s important to address those four points because society at large can and must do better on all of them. They are all interdependent.
Crucial aspects absent from conversation
At the same, these four points are not the full list. Crucial aspects that are absent from the conversation about children of alcoholics are:
- Alcohol policy measures in general.
- The environment that is available to children of alcoholics.
- Child rights and the need for prevention.
Also these three aspects are interdependent. Their absence from the debate is hurting children of alcoholics. And so, I think there’s urgency in adding them to the conversation – for the sake of a more comprehensive and sustainable solution.
Part of MP Byrne’s ten point plan is also the alcohol policy measure called Minimum Unit Pricing. So, alcohol policy as such is not completely absent from the picture. But what we need to realise is that alcohol policy measures that reduce alcohol availability and affordability and that ban alcohol advertising have positive impact on the livelihood of children of alcoholics in several and powerful ways.
Those alcohol policy measures, known as the three best buys, are prevention measures. They help to ensure that fewer parents end up with alcohol use disorder. And they are also measures that impact the environment – that every citizen, including children of alcoholics live in. They regulate how much alcohol can be glamorised and how omnipresent it is; how much or little it is available socially, psychologically, physically and economically – and all those things matter for the mental health, the wellbeing and the self-esteem of children of alcoholics.
CoA Empowerment – no rocket science
It’s not rocket science to imagine that the avalanche of alcohol marketing is often painful for children of alcoholics. When the home is not a safe haven, public space should be. But all too often the presence of alcohol takes this realm of comfort, of meeting other people away, too.
It’s not rocket science either to realise that the omnipresence of alcohol in many of the social gatherings of the Western world often leads to exclusion of children of alcoholics.
The primary objective of drug prevention is to help people, particularly but not exclusively young people, to avoid or delay initiation into the use of drugs, or, if they have started already, to avoid developing disorders (e.g. dependence).
The general aim of drug prevention, however, is much broader than this: it is the healthy and safe development of children and youth to realize their talents and potential and become contributing members of their community and society.
Effective drug prevention contributes significantly to the positive engagement of children, young people and adults with their families, schools, workplace and community.
This is a quote from the introduction to the International Standards on Drug Use Prevention. And I think it shows what the conversation about children of alcoholics needs to address: the need to empower them and provide them with enabling and safe environments to develop healthy self images, and to realise their full potential. Early identification, intervention, and treatment opportunities are all important – no question about it.
At the same time, we tend to forget that children of alcoholics do not just need “special environments” but also simply “normal” ones where they can socialise and make experiences that foster self-esteem, self confidence, getting to know people they agree with and they disagree with etc.
This consideration has one important conclusion: our societies need to build more environments that are inclusive, that are accessible to more youth, not less; we need more environments where more youth can feel safe, including children of alcoholics.
Quite simply: we need many more spaces free from alcohol: youth clubs, sports facilities, nightclubs and parties, school settings, public spaces and so on.
In IOGT International, we work heart-driven to combine those four aspects mentioned above with the three aspects I wrote about now. We believe that prevention means absence of harm and presence of positive opportunities to develop potential – and that this prevention is a Child Rights, as stipulated by Article 3.1 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC):
In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.