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By Rebecca Smith
Coordinator for the Northeast Texas Coalition Against Substance Abuse

He can seem odd and often crude, but one of the people who best helped me understand addiction is actor and comedian Russell Brand.

“Drugs and alcohol are not my problem, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solution,” He said in a 2013 essay for The Guardian. “If this seems odd to you it is because you are not an alcoholic or a drug addict … I will relinquish all else to ride that buzz to oblivion … I look to drugs and booze to fill up a hole in me.”

Far from being a choice, alcoholism is a serious disease that makes those who struggle with it crave alcohol like it is food or water.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, established in 1987 by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) “to help reduce the stigma so often associated with alcoholism by encouraging communities to reach out to the American public each April with information about alcohol, alcoholism and recovery.”

What stuns me about alcoholism is how many people it affects.

“Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems,” reads the NCADD website. “More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking, and more than 7 million children live in a household where at least one parent is dependent on or has abused alcohol.”

Every time I go to a school and give a presentation about alcohol, I ask the students to raise their hands if they know someone whose life has been negatively impacted by alcohol abuse.

I’ve presented to hundreds of students now and in every class, every student raises their hand.

According to NCADD, “88,000 deaths are annually attributed to excessive alcohol use; alcoholism is the 3rd leading lifestyle-related cause of death in the nation; and up to 40 percent of all hospital beds in the United States (except for those being used by maternity and intensive care patients) are being used to treat health conditions that are related to alcohol consumption.”

People suffering from alcoholism are our family members, friends, coworkers. You may even know someone you have no idea is struggling with alcoholism.

NCADD has named the first weekend of April “Alcohol-Free Weekend,” and is asking people to go without drinking alcohol from Friday to Sunday. For some, it will be a challenge. If you find it challenging, NCADD urges you to contact their local affiliates or Alcoholics Anonymous.

Here at Next Step, we focus on preventing alcoholism in the first place. One of the best ways to do that is preventing early use. We now know that early use is linked to an increased risk of alcoholism.

“Those who began drinking in their early teens were not only at greater risk of developing alcohol dependence at some point in their lives, they were also at greater risk of developing dependence more quickly and at younger ages, and of developing chronic, relapsing dependence,” according to a 2006 study by National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “Among all respondents who developed alcoholism at some point, almost half (47 percent) met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence (alcoholism) by age 21.”

Despite these facts, the average age of first use in Texas is still 13. Parents should communicate to their children and teens that this is unacceptable.

“It can be daunting to talk with children about drinking and drug use, but it is well worth the effort parents put into it,” reads the NCADD website. “In fact, research has shown that kids who have conversations with their parents and learn a lot about the dangers of alcohol and drug use are 50 percent less likely to use these substances than those who don’t have such conversations.”

And while you’re talking, don’t forget to listen to your kids too.

A blog post from the Partnership for Drug-free Kids has some tips for how to be a good listener. They recommend creating a safe environment, putting down your smartphone, letting your child vent, rephrase what they said so they know you understand, trying to see things from their point of view, be aware they may be hiding their true feelings and pay attention to body language, and confess when you don’t have the energy and restart the conversation later.

For more tips on how to talk to your kids about alcohol use, check out some of our previous blog posts, and we hope you participate and enjoy NCADD’s alcohol-free weekend.