‘We have a silence that surrounds us like a fortress and it takes courage to break it.’
Margaret, Expert from Experience
Standing in the Jubilee Room at Westminster was anything but a silent experience. I was attending the Alcohol and Families Alliance Parliamentary Fair on behalf of the Institute of Alcohol Studies. The room, found at the end of a dark and mysterious corridor off Westminster Hall, was packed. Running down either side were rows of stalls, with representatives from the Alliance. Attendees – politicians, civil servants, campaigners, and those with their own experiences – weaved around them, united in tackling the impact of alcohol upon families. The net effect was loud and positive. A chance to be heard.
Alcohol is the most widely used drug in the UK, with only one in five people abstaining. Many of us fail to use it in moderation, with over a quarter drinking more than 14 units per week (the recommended Chief Medical Officers’ low risk level). Alcohol consumption looms as an ever-present castle on the hill, visible throughout society.
Vivienne Evans, Chief Executive of Adfam, opened the speeches and introduced Margaret, who grew up in a family affected by alcohol. Margaret walked us through her path to breaking down her fortress and finding her voice. She recalled that, as a child, she had written a story about her weekend and had needed to get the teacher’s help because she did not know how to spell ‘alcohol’. Not one person asked her why she wanted to write that word. She referenced all the children who have their older sibling attend a parents’ evening, do not have their permission slip for the excursion, or use the same crumpled, unwashed, PE kit at the start of a new term. These children are sending us signals over their walls, they are speaking to us with their actions, and we need to be better at seeing them. We have to start listening.
Alcohol causes a staggering volume of harm in the UK. Alcohol-related conditions claim the lives of 66 people every day in England alone. Many of the lives lost are young, as alcohol is the leading cause of early mortality and disability amongst those aged 15-49. These young, working-age, people are also those who are likely to have children. While alcohol sits as a proud palisade, prominent and central, in our society, the grim foundations of its harm are buried, but they sit deep and wide.
George Freeman MP recalled the impact alcohol had upon his childhood. He spoke of how he had, as a child, cared for his mother: a woman who has since overcome the condition. He used to divide adults into two camps, those who understood, bent down on one knee and asked ‘how are you?’ when they saw him, and those who looked away. This ethos was central to his inspiration to become a politician. When he visited Parliament during a school trip, he realised that here stood a group of people from the first camp: they were the ones who took responsibility and bent down on one knee. He called for a 1,000 Margaret’s and a 1,000 children to come to Parliament and be heard.
Over the course of one year alone, more than 4,000 children reached out to ChildLine with concerns about their parents’ or caregivers’ drinking. It is estimated that around 200,000 children live with an alcohol-dependent adult, but the true number may well be higher. Worse still alcohol can shunt these children onto a spiral staircase: they are four times more likely to become alcohol-dependent themselves. For those children, and their parents and wider families, alcohol can form a complexity of walls that obstruct their lives. And so often we choose to ignore those lost in this labyrinth.
Jonathon Ashworth MP, the Shadow Health Secretary, spoke about successes. He spoke of how sharing his story sparked at least one family’s conversation about alcohol harm, and I suspect his brave step to make this public has triggered many more. He highlighted the decision, made in conjunction with then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, to provide more financial support for services for children of families affected by alcohol harm. This support is essential, as Liam Bryne MP’s speech made clear. He has experienced considerable challenges, which he attributes, in part, to his experience of growing up in a family that struggled with alcohol-dependency. He drew a stark image of the reach of alcohol’s harm: describing how, decades after his childhood, he still benefited from support, counselling, and, above all, recovery. This illustrates the need for people, from all social strata, to talk about this problem. There will be many more Liams out there who may not yet feel able to step forward, and may miss an opportunity to recover.
A large systematic review found that alcohol-dependency was less likely to be viewed as a mental illness, people who suffer from it were more likely to be blamed, and people were more willing to approve of structural discrimination against people with alcohol dependency. As was so clear from today, this stigma corrupts everything it touches. People who suffer the harms of alcohol build defences, from fear of judgement or consequence. But these defences become traps. They muffle the cries of children and families, and our own shame turns our backs and averts our eyes. The Alcohol and Families Alliance, all of their members, and every person who spoke today, are doing their best to break down these barriers, to turn people’s gaze back and make them bend down on one knee. That is why events like this are so important: We need everyone to call out, so we can bring this issue back into focus and take effective action. No one, be they a child or adult, should have to sit alone in the dark. Courage is needed from within and without to break these forbidding walls.
Written by Kieran Bunn, Policy and Advocacy Assistant IAS