The final item of business today is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-07188, in the name of Gordon MacDonald, on Al-Anon Family Groups, supporting families with alcohol-related issues. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament understands that Al-Anon Family Groups, a charity that receives no external financial support, has only one focus, which is to help and support families and friends of problem drinkers; believes that for every problem drinker it is estimated that at least five other people are adversely affected; understands that there are over 120 Al-Anon Family Group meetings in Scotland, including in Edinburgh, for people who are or have been affected by someone else’s drinking to meet and gain understanding and support in order to resolve their common problems, and commends the work of Al-Anon Family Groups over the last 60 years in supporting families dealing with alcohol-related issues.
I begin by thanking my fellow members of the Scottish Parliament who have supported the motion, thereby enabling it to achieve cross-party support and allowing this debate to take place. I take the opportunity to welcome to the gallery members of Al-Anon Family Groups and also the health professionals who are attending the debate before this evening’s event.
What is Al-Anon Family Groups, why is it needed today and what makes it unique? Al-Anon Family Groups is a community resource that provides support for people who are affected by someone else’s drinking. It is a fellowship of relatives and friends of alcoholics who share their experiences in order to solve their common problems. It is there for anyone who requires support, as it does not have any religious or political affiliations and is multiracial.
Al-Anon Family Groups began as an informal meeting of the close relatives of recovering alcoholics. Alcoholics Anonymous had begun in Ohio in 1935, and members of that group started to take along their wives for support. The wives realised that they all shared the same problem of living with an alcoholic, and when they talked to one another, they realised that they, too, had been affected and also needed a programme of recovery.
By 1951, so many family groups were associated with Alcoholics Anonymous that it was decided to create a separate organisation, which became Al-Anon Family Groups UK & Eire. Its first meeting in the United Kingdom took place in Belfast in 1951. Glasgow followed several years later. There are now approximately 125 meetings in Scotland, and there are 800 family support groups in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
What is the extent of the alcohol dependency problem? Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems highlights the background to the issue on its website. It says:
“Over the past 50 years the price of alcohol has continually fallen to the extent that certain retailers currently sell alcohol, ostensibly a dangerous drug, as a loss leader simply to encourage the sale of other products.
Added to this is the fact that alcohol is available in many parts of the UK 24 hours a day, and it is again local supermarkets and convenience stores that are reaping the benefits of this relaxation of trade; the majority of sales of alcohol are no longer limited to bars and off licences.”
It goes on to highlight that
“One quarter of the UK’s population are now classed as harmful drinkers.”
The World Health Organization’s “Global status report on alcohol and health”, which was published in 2011, states that, in the UK, the amount of pure alcohol that was being consumed per year per person reached 13.4 litres. That is higher than the European average of 12.2 litres, which is double the worldwide average of 6.1 litres. The fact sheet on alcohol that the World Health Organization issued in February 2011 outlines the extent of the problem and its effect on society. It says:
“The harmful use of alcohol is a global problem which compromises both individual and social development. It results in 2.5 million deaths” worldwide
“each year. It also causes harm far beyond the physical and psychological health of the drinker. It harms the well-being and health of people around the drinker. An intoxicated person can harm others or put them at risk of traffic accidents or violent behaviour, or negatively affect co-workers, relatives, friends or strangers. Thus, the impact of the harmful use of alcohol reaches deep into society.”
With that background, Al-Anon Family Groups has continued to grow. It now provides support in 115 countries and has a worldwide group membership of approximately 24,000.
Scotland has had a difficult relationship with alcohol for decades. Alcohol sales data suggest that consumption has increased by 11 per cent since 1994. Fifty per cent of prisoners were drunk at the time of their offence, and alcohol-related hospital discharges have quadrupled since the early 1980s. It has been estimated that the impact of that excessive consumption costs Scots £3.6 billion each year, which is equivalent to £900 for every adult in Scotland. Against that background, the Scottish Parliament passed the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act 2012 in June 2012, which made possible the introduction of minimum pricing for alcohol at a future date.
Many organisations and charities in Scotland are involved in supporting or helping alcoholics and their families, but what makes Al-Anon Family Groups unique is that it is self-supporting through the voluntary contributions of its members. There are no dues or fees, and the organisation does not accept any outside funds, grants or donations. The Al-Anon programme is based on confidentiality, and people who take part develop a sense of trust, which allows them to speak confidentially and honestly about their issues relating to living with someone who suffers from alcohol dependency. Someone else’s drinking can turn people’s love to hate, bring them to the depths of despair, affect them financially, lead to violent outbursts, make them doubt their sanity and make them think that they are the problem.
Al-Anon does not offer advice or counselling, but members give each other understanding, strength and hope as a result of their shared experiences.
The World Health Organization is due to update this year its figures for alcohol consumption by country. We can only hope that they show a decline in our drinking habits. One pointer to what the figures for Scotland might show is that 1,080 alcohol-related deaths occurred in 2012. Although that is 80 per cent higher than the figure in the mid-1980s, it is a substantial decline from the high point in 2006, when the 1,540 deaths from alcohol represented the largest figure ever to be recorded.
Regardless of how the World Health Organization’s updated figures change, Al-Anon Family Groups will be there to provide support for family members, whether or not a person is still drinking, for many years to come.
I am delighted to contribute to this debate on the important subject of families who are affected by alcohol-related issues. I commend Gordon MacDonald for securing time to congratulate Al-Anon Family Groups on its fantastic work to support families who are affected by alcoholism.
As a former addiction counsellor with Glasgow Council on Alcohol, I understand the devastating impact that drug and alcohol dependencies can have not only on the individuals who are affected, but on their families and their communities. The reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with the causes and consequences of alcohol abuse.
Al-Anon hosts meetings and support groups across the UK to allow friends and families of those who abuse alcohol to share experiences and to work together to solve common problems. More than 800 support groups operate in the UK and Ireland, and 120 of them are based in Scotland.
I know from experience that such work is vital in addressing many of the underlying causes of alcoholism, and that it brings communities together in the pursuit of shared goals. Social work services in each of our 32 local authorities rely on organisations such as Al-Anon to work in partnership with the public sector to make the best use of scarce resources in challenging economic circumstances.
Al-Anon Family Groups has carried out its work for more than 60 years, but receives no external financial support from the Scottish Government or local authorities, as my colleague Gordon MacDonald mentioned. The organisation works in some of our most deprived communities and with some of the most vulnerable individuals in society.
I thank Al-Anon Family Groups for its dedication to improving the lives of those who are struggling with alcohol-related issues and I commend the excellent and outstanding work that it carries out in Scotland and the rest of the UK to improve the lives of vulnerable individuals, their families and the wider community.
I thank my colleague Gordon MacDonald for securing the debate. Members across the chamber are aware of the impact that alcohol misuse has in Scotland, of its grievous effect on families and communities and of the need to challenge this socially destructive addiction. My father died as a result of his alcoholism, and I remember years when I did not see him sober from month to month, so much of the debate has a personal resonance.
The alcohol consumption rate in Scotland is among the highest in Europe. Scottish Government figures suggest that half of men and a third of women regularly drink at levels that are above the recommended weekly limits. With misuse comes a plethora of health-related issues, which range from short-term alcoholic poisoning to long-term kidney and liver failure. Mental health issues may be severe; depression and dependency may be long lasting.
Although the personal side-effects are well known, the problems that alcohol misuse causes go deeper and have an impact on communities, the national health service, criminal justice and wider society. The causes of high consumption rates include the availability of cheap, strong alcohol, coupled with special offers in shops. That has normalised consumption and allowed it to become an everyday necessity for many. Such normalisation, however, touches individuals, families, communities and society.
This morning, I addressed a well-attended conference of Glasgow Council on Alcohol to launch a new service that was designed as a direct result of my members’ business debate on the origins of addiction on 8 January this year. At the launch, Richard Velleman, emeritus professor of mental health research, discussed the huge scale of alcohol misuse and the negative impact on individual families and children specifically, on family finances, social life, routines, rituals, roles and communication within the family. Problems such as domestic and other types of violence, instability and embarrassment might have to be faced along with denial, living in fear, parental inconsistency and instability, all of which can leave children to deal with problems related to disturbed family functioning, conflict and breakdown.
For the children, unsurprisingly, antisocial behaviour, emotional difficulties, precocious maturity, problems with school work and a difficult transition from adolescence can emerge. In the long term, adults who grew up in such households are more likely to have physical illnesses ranging from gynaecological problems and ischaemic heart disease to diabetes and musculoskeletal disorders. Prolonged traumatic childhood stress that is caused or heightened by alcohol misuse in the family can damage the autonomous and sympathetic nervous systems, making one increasingly vulnerable to pain and infections through a weakened autoimmune response.
However, although children can have damaged lives stemming from alcohol misuse in the family, the overwhelming majority do not, as Professor Velleman made clear this morning. Children are often highly resilient. Protective factors—most importantly a close bond with a caring adult, a good network of wider family support, and an outside hobby or activity of any description—are all vital to ensuring a counter-balancing stability, attachment and security as opposed to unpredictability, insecurity and isolation.
We must build on that and reach out to the children who need such support. I therefore pay tribute to Scotland’s 120 Al-Anon Family Groups and the vital work that they do. Education and support for those who misuse alcohol are essential aspects of rehabilitation and it is important to mention the vital work that is being done by alcohol support groups across Scotland. Care groups, agencies and charities help addicts to face their issues head on by looking not just at the addiction itself but at its underlying causes. They might be related to mental health or an issue of sexual abuse. Amongst others, the use of counselling, relapse and family support are just some of the methods of support that are being provided. I am aware of the work that alcohol and drugs partnerships do in my constituency, and I am encouraged by their dedication.
The positive contribution of Al-Anon Family Groups is immeasurable and I whole-heartedly applaud their continuing works. Help and support is necessary to overcome addiction and to provide aid and relief to those who are adversely affected. To end the vicious cycle of addiction, more action is essential to support and safeguard our current and future generations’ health and prosperity.
In the parliamentary chamber, we frequently discuss the dangers of alcohol and what it does to an individual’s health, whether that be liver damage, premature death by poisoning, long-term brain disorders or many of the other effects that overconsumption can have.
We also highlight in debate the strain that is put on our NHS, particularly in accident and emergency departments, by people presenting who are intoxicated and badly injured and who require immediate treatment, often at the expense of other patients who have serious conditions that are not caused by alcohol. Last week, the BBC’s breakfast news covered this subject, and I was struck when it pointed to one individual who had been admitted to hospital more than 230 times in less than two years with injuries that they had sustained as a result of alcohol misuse.
However, this evening’s debate rightly focuses on the effect that alcohol has on those around problem drinkers, which is a subject that perhaps does not receive the attention that it deserves. I therefore thank Gordon MacDonald for lodging the motion that is before us.
We would be hard pressed to find any adult in Scotland, the UK or indeed the wider world who has not heard of Alcoholics Anonymous. However, if the same people were asked whether they had heard of Al-Anon Family Groups, we would probably receive a different answer. Set up more than 60 years ago in New York by the wife of the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, the support network’s aim is to offer strength and hope to friends and relatives of problem drinkers by sharing experiences and offering mutual help.
Never is the expression, “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors” more relevant than when it is applied to families who live with an alcoholic. Wives and husbands often endure years of domestic abuse brought on by drink-fuelled violence, with almost half of all incidents being caused by people who are under the influence of alcohol or who are dependent on alcohol. Sadly, such cases are frequently unreported, with family members of the alcoholic either feeling embarrassed to report such incidents or, too often, feeling that they themselves are the problem.
Of course, domestic abuse that is brought on by a problem drinker is not restricted to physical violence. There is also the financial burden that is placed on families or friends who find themselves in debt or acting as cash machines to fund an individual’s alcohol addiction. Although AI-Anon cannot provide financial help, and—as the motion states—it is a charity that is not funded externally, it provides an environment in which those who are closest to an alcohol-dependent individual are able to share their difficulties with others in similar situations.
Perhaps the greatest endurance for families and friends of an alcoholic is the emotional strain that is placed on people. There can be the feeling of helplessness about seeing someone whom they care about becoming unrecognisable as the person he or she once was. Sadly, there is the tendency for love for that person to turn to hate, along with the guilt and despair that are associated with such emotions. That is why grass-roots groups such as AI-Anon are so important in facilitating meetings to show those affected that the range of emotions experienced are understandable and that they themselves are not responsible for the alcohol dependency of a family member or friend.
Scotland is particularly supportive of the aims and work of AI-Anon, with more than 120 groups meeting regularly—there are six in my region of North East Scotland, including three in my home town of Aberdeen.
I want to touch on the equally important role that is played by Alateen, a support group that was founded in 1957 by a Californian teenager whose father was a recovering alcoholic and whose mother was a member of AI-Anon. Alateen, which was established in Britain in the 1960s, is there for 12 to 17-year-olds who are growing up in an environment where a family member is alcohol dependent. That period is a crucial stage in the life of a teenager, when all sorts of emotions—as well as physical and mental changes—are occurring. The addition of the presence of alcoholism in others in a teenager’s life can have a devastating effect when someone is so vulnerable. Alateen shows young people that, quite simply, they are not alone.
The debate is timely when alcohol abuse is affecting so many lives, young and old, in Scotland, and I commend Gordon MacDonald for bringing it to the chamber.
I thank Al-Anon for creating the opportunity for the debate and Gordon MacDonald for bringing the topic to the chamber.
Alcohol is an unusual drug—because that is what it is—in that its effect on people is quite varied. For some people, the lowering of inhibitions and the increase in confidence leads to an increase in creativity; for others, that lowering of inhibitions and increase in confidence leads into far less productive areas. Of course, excess use of alcohol—leading in due course to addiction—is destructive of family life, of relationships and, ultimately it is destructive of the addicts themselves.
My father was a country GP and, like all general practitioners, he had his catalogue of alcoholics. In the 1950s and early 1960s, he never felt that he had the remedies at his disposal that delivered the results that he sought. When I was old enough to drive, I provided some pastoral support to some of his alcoholics and others in the family did the same, but the outcomes were not particularly good.
When I became a manager of staff—some hundreds of staff—in the 1970s, 1980s and onwards, I, of course, once again met people who were suffering from the consequences of alcohol misuse. However, by that time the existence of support groups such as Al-Anon and the professional support that was available had transformed the outcomes for those who were affected by alcohol. I can say that the majority of people whom we were able to refer to professional services and connect to support groups had substantially better outcomes. We understand addictions better now than we used to. They come in many forms and alcohol is merely one of them.
Of course, let us not imagine that this is a new problem. The Canadian historian T C Smout, in his social history of Scotland, describes how in the mid-1800s, in a village in East Lothian, there was one pub for every 14 inhabitants. That tells you something about the place of alcohol in that community.
At about that time, it was recognised in the Swedish town of Gothenburg that the evils of drink were affecting wider society. The community in Gothenburg got together and opened its own pub, so that the profits from the trade could be recycled into more useful activities. To this day, in various towns across Scotland one can still see pubs called “The Goth”, which comes from the Gothenburg experiment that came from Sweden.
Drink has probably resulted in genetic changes—particularly in England, where beer was a substitute for water because many cities did not have good supplies of potable water—and tolerance of alcohol has grown. However, the trouble is that, as others who are less adapted have used alcohol, we have seen a disproportionate effect from that.
Relationships are affected by not just the immediate consumption of alcohol, but the change in people’s behaviours. People become secretive about their addiction, and that cuts them off from their families and friends. Groups such as Al-Anon are vital to preserving and growing relationships and for supporting people with addiction. I hope that such groups continue to support communities across Scotland and beyond.
I thank Gordon MacDonald for securing the debate. This is a topic that should be debated in the Parliament again and again. Our relationship with alcohol is such a big issue that I hope that a debate on it is secured on at least an annual basis so that we can talk openly about Al-Anon.
Most folk in Scotland have relatives or friends who live abroad. Most of us also have an alcoholic in the family or within our circle of friends. At first, most of us do not understand the relationship with alcoholism, but we need to come to understand what is happening to the alcoholic, the symptoms of alcoholism and the effect that the condition has on other members of the family. I think that I am right in saying that, for every person suffering from alcohol addiction, another eight or 10 people are suffering all the symptoms. The madness, the irrationality and the extraordinary behaviour of the alcoholic are often reflected in what become the madness and the irrationality of the lives of those who are trying to live with that person. Al-Anon absolutely understands that.
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Al-Anon is the friendships that are made when the alcoholic first comes to understand or realise that he or she is sick. The organisation that befriends and understands and is constantly there to remind the person suffering from the symptoms of alcoholism is a wonderful thing to be part of.
For the wives—and, increasingly, the husbands—who attend Al-Anon, there is the knowledge that they are part of not only a self-help group, which is literally what Al-Anon is, but an organisation that is truly international. As we have heard, AA started in Ohio in the United States, but the organisation is now international to the extent that, wherever one might go, there will be an Al-Anon meeting taking place, if not that night, the following night or the following morning. There are Al-Anon friends around the globe, because, as we know, every addict is a recovering—not a recovered—alcoholic.
Many of us have had the experience of living with alcoholism or someone who is recovering from alcoholism, and nothing settles it like an Al-Anon meeting. The genuine help from Al-Anon is to be welcomed, so I am delighted that Gordon MacDonald has raised the issue in the Parliament. We need to spread the word about Al-Anon to the many hundreds of thousands of people across Scotland who still do not know about it, as it brings incredible comfort. I thank Gordon MacDonald very much for bringing the debate to the Parliament, and I thank the members of Al-Anon who are in the public gallery for the work that they have done and continue to do to bring people to sobriety in Scotland.
I, too, welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate and I congratulate Gordon MacDonald on securing it. We have heard of some of the excellent work that the 120 Al-Anon Family Groups do in communities throughout Scotland, including my constituency of North East Fife, which I think is the same part of the world where Stewart Stevenson’s father was a country GP. Earlier in the year, I was delighted to sponsor a parliamentary exhibition for the group, and I know that the vast majority of members stopped to speak to the exhibitors and find out about their work. I know that they were grateful for the support that the Parliament showed them on that occasion.
I am certain that few members would deny the scourge that alcohol is on potential in this country. Mark Robinson of NHS Scotland recently announced that, despite an 8 per cent fall in drink sales last year,
“we are still drinking too much as a nation”.
I am also certain that nobody in the Parliament will be unaware of the damage that alcohol can do, both to those who overuse it and to those who feel the effects of that.
Last year, the reduction in alcohol sales, compared to 2009, was the equivalent of 35 million pints of beer. Despite that, as Gordon MacDonald mentioned, alcohol sales in Scotland were higher than they were in 1994. In particular, sales of vodka per person were twice as high in Scotland compared to sales south of the border. Although I welcome the reduction in overall alcohol sales, more needs to be done for those who suffer directly and indirectly.
There is a broad range of support and guidance for those who directly suffer the effects of alcohol misuse and it is proper and correct that that is the case. There have been numerous—arguably, too many—high-profile cases of alcoholism negatively impacting on individuals. Those include the author Stephen King, the actor Robert Downey and the former first lady Betty Ford, to name just a few. What those people have in common is that they accepted interventions from their friends and family to help them to combat their addictions, and they all recovered. I am sure that we all realise the strength and courage that are required to carry out those interventions and that their families would have required significant support to help them through the process.
Although there is a broad range of support for alcoholics, the effects that alcoholism can have on people’s family and friends is often less clear. Where alcoholics’ families can go for support is also often less clear. That is where voluntary organisations such as Al-Anon Family Groups can be of significant benefit. The relatives of alcoholics do not need just counselling or advice; they need compassion and a level of understanding from people who have gone through what they are going through and who have been negatively affected by another person’s alcoholism. Al-Anon does not offer solutions. As Gordon MacDonald said, it offers understanding, strength and hope as well as support and solidarity. It offers not only a listening ear but an understanding ear. It offers the courage for people to continue the seemingly endless battle against another person’s alcoholism.
Earlier, I named three recovered alcoholics who have all gone on to considerable success and to become more famous and wealthy than most of us can imagine. Betty Ford even set up a renowned clinic in her name to help alcoholics and their family members to recover. Before doing that, however, she, just like every other alcoholic, relied on the support of her family to help her recover from her addiction. Her family, like the family of any other alcoholic, saw and felt the worst effects of alcoholism.
Although those individuals might not have had the specific support of Al-Anon Family Groups, I am delighted that Al-Anon has a presence throughout Scotland—in Edinburgh, North East Fife and beyond—because without the on-going support of such groups, countless numbers of people would struggle in silence as they watch a family member tear apart their life and the lives of those around them. I welcome Al-Anon’s continued presence, although I hope that one day it will not need as large a presence and that Scotland can finally rid itself of the damaging aspects of its drinking culture and drink-related early deaths.
As others have, I congratulate Gordon MacDonald on securing time for the debate, which brings to the chamber the important work of Al-Anon and the role that it plays in tacking alcohol misuse within our society.
In his speech, Gordon MacDonald set out very well the valuable support that Al-Anon provides to anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking. It is just as important for those who are affected by someone else’s drinking to receive support, as it is for those who themselves are affected by problematic drinking. Al-Anon plays an invaluable role.
We are already acutely aware of the damaging effects that excessive alcohol consumption has on individuals, families and communities. A number of members in their speeches referred to those damaging effects. Scotland’s drink problem is now significantly worse than that of the rest of the UK. We drink almost a fifth more than the English and Welsh, which fuels much higher levels of alcohol-related harm. The statistics are stark. Alcohol-related hospital discharges in Scotland have quadrupled since the early 1980s and Scotland has one of the fastest-growing chronic liver disease and cirrhosis rates in the world.
This Government has, since 2008, made significant investment in local services to prevent the occurrence of alcohol-related problems and to provide treatment and support for those who already have a problem. We have long said that there is no single solution that will change Scotland’s relationship with alcohol. Our alcohol framework outlines a package of over 40 measures to tackle alcohol-related harm, including one that we believe is important: minimum unit pricing.
In our framework, we also acknowledge families and communities as being one of the four areas for sustained action, alongside consumption reduction, the encouragement of more positive attitudes and positive choices, and improved treatment and support services across the country.
What we also know, and what today’s debate has highlighted, is that it is not just those who drink too much who are affected; alcohol misuse impacts negatively on people around drinkers, including family, friends and communities. Alcohol misuse impacts on children who live with parents who have a drink problem; heavy drinking is a common factor in family break-ups. The impact of our excessive consumption of alcohol is estimated to cost Scots £3.6 billion each year, which breaks down as £900 for every adult.
We need to understand better the full extent of alcohol–related harm in our communities in order to tackle a complex and, at times, ingrained problem. A new research study by Alcohol Focus Scotland seeks to investigate the harm that is caused by alcohol to people other than drinkers. The study started in September last year and will be published shortly. The Scottish Government has contributed grant funding to the overall costs. The study will provide us with a clearer insight into the true impact of overconsumption of alcohol on the wider community. I have no doubt that the information will reinforce the important work that is carried out by groups such as Al-Anon.
We have taken a range of actions to provide support to others who are affected by alcohol misuse. Alcohol and drug partnerships were set up in 2009 and are responsible for developing local strategies to tackle problems such as alcohol and drug use, and to promote recovery. They also take into account the impact that problem alcohol and drug use has on families, and the need for related services to provide appropriate support.
A range of measures must be taken, and advertising is one of the key issues. There is a challenge around social media, because it is much harder to control them than the general media. It is clearly a growing area, however, and we are considering it as part of our alcohol policy.
This year, the Scottish Government is providing more than £38 million to support our alcohol and drug partnerships in their work on alcohol. That is designed to ensure that people who want to take up early intervention treatment if they have an alcohol problem get timely and quick access to the support and treatment that they require. That is why I am particularly pleased that the target for drug and alcohol treatment was exceeded at national level, with 94.6 per cent of people waiting three weeks or less to receive appropriate treatment.
A range of policy areas can impact directly on helping to support families and their children in addressing alcohol-misuse problems in their households. I would like to highlight the actions in our approach to children who are affected by parental substance misuse, which focuses on reducing impacts on children through prevention and early intervention, through strengthening support for families and through management of immediate risk.
The Scottish Government recognises the on-going challenges that overconsumption of alcohol represents for Scottish society. As I mentioned earlier, there is no single solution to the problem. We need to take forward a range of measures, and Al-Anon plays an invaluable role in helping to support the families and individuals who are affected by someone’s misuse of alcohol. I wish it well in its on-going work, and I have no doubt that it will continue to provide important support to communities across the country.
Meeting closed at 17:42.