- Every year, more than 2,000 young people are admitted to emergency departments for alcohol poisoning.
- Young people still drink in order to feel like they belong.
- Raising awareness among young people of the consequences of alcohol has a positive impact.
Every year in Belgium, more than 2,000 young people are admitted to emergency departments for alcohol poisoning. UAntwerp established the Chair for Youth and Alcohol, with professors Nico van der Lely and Guido Van Hal as chairholders. Both gentlemen are also setting up the first Flemish alcohol clinic. As a psychiatrist at Multiversum, alumna Lieve De Backer sees what alcohol dependence does to young people. And in his master dissertation on young people and alcohol, Pierre-Emmanuel De Smedt discovered the impact of raising awareness in schools.
Consequences alcohol abuse
Professor Guido Van Hal and his Dutch colleague Nico van der Lely are working together on a Chair for Youth and Alcohol at the University of Antwerp. The aim is to open Flanders’ first alcohol clinic and to thus apply knowledge from the Netherlands on alcohol abuse and young people to Flanders.
Alcohol is the most widely used legal hard drug in Belgium and has major effects on the body and mind – especially on young people. It can lead to health problems and risks of sexual harassment. This is because alcohol switches off a piece of your brain – the amygdala – which causes disinhibition. Damage to the brain leads to a loss of intellectual capital and also negatively affects our emotional control and impulse control. Alcohol therefore does not only impact the young person drinking: society as a whole suffers.
The poor figures forced our university to take action. A Chair for Youth and Alcohol was established in 2021 and the first alcohol clinic in our country was opened in January 2022. The driving forces behind this initiative are Professor Van Hal and his Dutch colleague Nico van der Lely.
Alcohol is the most widely used legal hard drug in Belgium and has major effects on the body and mind – especially on young people.
To measure is to know
Alcohol clinics in the Netherlands give us many figures on alcohol use among young people. Boys are admitted with a higher blood alcohol level than girls, but boys are usually a bit older than girls when they are admitted to the hospital. Mostly young people drank spirits, often mixed with soft drinks. ‘This is very dangerous mix: you taste the high alcohol content of 40% less because of the sweet mix and therefore drink more easily’, Van der Lely explains.
‘We don’t have those figures for Flanders yet’, Van Hal says. ‘Our emergency departments reported an increase in minors with alcohol poisoning, so we decided to start measuring as well.’
The alcohol clinics mainly aim to raise awareness of the dangers of alcohol to avoid recurrence. In the outpatient clinics, young people with alcohol intoxication are initially checked for injuries, blood is drawn and a heart monitor is taken. From the moment they are awake, in the golden hour (the hour after waking from their intoxication), they receive a special programme, with education on alcohol abuse through interactive videos and a conversation with the doctor.
If necessary, a neuropsychological examination follows or appointments are made with Veilig Thuis (Safe at Home) – the child abuse counselling and contact centre – if the home situation is not ideal. ‘We won’t let the young person flounder. They are also contacted afterwards for a follow-up interview.’ And it pays off: relapse has essentially been reduced to zero.
After the hospitalization in an alcohol clinic, the youngsters are contacted for a follow-up interview.
From 16 to 18 years
Based on the data from Van der Lely and colleagues, the age limit at which you can drink alcohol in the Netherlands has been raised from 16 to 18. It is more difficult in Belgium, because of its cultural beer culture and the complexity of federal and Flemish authorities. On top of that, we enjoy a more sociable lifestyle with good food and drinks, while the Netherlands is more modest and Protestant. So it seems like we are fighting a losing battle. ‘In any case, the minimum age to buy tobacco in Belgium was also raised from 16 to 18 in 2019, so we will continue to push for a change.’
Awareness raising lesson on alcohol and young people
So do Belgian young people have an alcohol problem? Why is alcohol so dangerous for this age group? And how can we best raise their awareness? That was the topic of Pierre-Emmanuel De Smedt’s master dissertation. With a detailed lesson on raising awareness, he visited secondary schools, which was effective.
Alcohol is clearly present not only in student environments, but also in the media, sports world and at cultural events. That is why pharmaceutical sciences student Pierre-Emmanuel De Smedt wrote his master dissertation on young people and alcohol dependence. He questioned the extent to which young people know what alcohol does to them and the consequences of regular consumption. A report by the InterMutualist Agency showed that the number of recorded drunkennesses and the number of young people who ended up in the emergency department as a result thereof has risen over the past decade. The Netherlands is doing better. According to the Pierre-Emanuel, this is due to our neighbours having a better and more frequent approach to raising awareness.
Testimonies of alcoholics
The awareness raising lesson paid off. Almost one in three students who had consumed alcohol at some point indicated in the retrospective survey that they would like to change their alcohol behaviour after the lesson. That effect was greatest among sixteen-year-olds. Also, 86 per cent were happy to have received an alcohol awareness lesson. Most indicated that they were aware of the dangers of smoking, but not of drinking. Ninety-one per cent said they had definitely learnt something. Moreover, the testimonies of alcoholics in the class had made 57 per cent of them think hard. The schools where the awareness raising lesson was conducted were all asking for an annual repeat. It is clear that additional efforts are needed to make sure young people consume alcohol responsibly.
A change can also be felt at university. Antwerp’s student clubs, for example, are becoming more conscious about alcohol consumption at their activities. At ASK-Stuwer, the umbrella student association on Campus Drie Eiken, Groenenborger and Middelheim, the organisers do not drink alcohol during their activities. At counterpart Unifac, operating on Stadscampus, all team members are always 100% BOB (alcohol-free) at activities. That way, students do not feel ‘obligated’ to drink alcohol because of peer pressure.
‘Alcohol abuse and suicidal behaviour often go hand in hand’
Alumna and psychiatrist Lieve De Backer knows better than anyone else what alcohol dependence does to young people. She is a policy psychiatrist in the transition psychiatry department at Multiversum psychiatric centre, treating adolescents between the ages of 16 to 24.
‘From the age of 18, young people basically enter adult psychiatry’, Lieve explains. ‘But they don’t actually belong there yet. We have recently discovered that our brains continue to develop until the age of 25. There are only four residential centres in Flanders that focus specifically on this group.’
Lieve works with a very diverse target audience from all walks of life – more girls than boys – and notes that the corona period has not had a positive effect on the mental well-being of young people. ‘During that corona period without hobbies and other outlets, drinking alcohol was a coping mechanism for some, to feel better and forget about everything for a while. That period really damaged them.’
It is important to look at what function drinking has for the young person.
Development of the prefrontal cortex in the brain, the part that enables good decision making, is not fully developed until you are 24–25 years old. Young people are thus more prone to inappropriate and impulsive behaviour than adults, and alcohol consumption exacerbates this behaviour. Moreover, alcohol consumption in young people with suicidal thoughts can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Adolescents who start drinking at a young age later often have difficulty expressing their emotions and connecting with other people.
Lieve advocates for society to tackle the use of alcohol among young people. Alcohol consumption is currently often condoned and seen as part of becoming an adult. Just as banning smoking in public places drastically reduced the number of smokers, banning alcohol consumption can have a big impact. She therefore favours alcohol clinics and other measures that can problematise alcohol use among young people.
Drinking to belong
As a psychiatrist, how do you treat an addiction problem? ‘If it is really addiction and there’s daily use, we guide the young person to an addiction unit’, Lieve explains. ‘But if it’s occasional use or use on weekends, then I engage with the young person. It is important to look at what function drinking has for the young person. Is it to belong? Or to feel better? Because then we can see if that need can be met in another way.’
In addition to her job as a psychiatrist, Lieve De Backer is also a visiting professor at our university. Among other things, she supervises a PhD research project on methodologies to help parents of children with a substance use disorder. An important aspect here is proximity. ‘Just being there for the young person without really engaging in dialogue all the time proves very helpful.’
Let's care about tomorrow today
Are you concerned about alcohol abuse amongst youngsters? Do you want to contribute to research about this, and have a direct impact?
The University of Antwerp is a good cause to which you can donate. Through a gift for the Chair for Youth & Alcohol, you can contribute to research about and solutions for alcohol abuse among young people.
For donations starting from 40 euros, the University of Antwerp Fund gives a tax certificate. With this, you can retrieve 45% of your gift through tax deduction. A win-win for you and the good cause!
You can donate by bank transfer to bank account number BE42 7310 4624 7854 in the name of 'Universiteit Antwerpen'. Be sure to mention 'fiscaal attest' (tax certificate) and your preferred destination in the communication field. An online donation can be made on the website of the Antwerp University Fund.