Alcohol: A sure path to destruction

BY: Doreen Hammond
Alcohol: A sure path to destruction
Doreen Hammond, the writer.

The recent knowledge about what tramadol is doing to our youth creates panic. This has come as a variation to the usual ‘wee’ smoking we have known to be destroying the lives of some of our youth, especially students.

But there is another one which seems to be more acceptable to our society but is silently causing havoc in families and wasting away the lives of many. This is alcoholism. In our homes and at our workplaces, we have seen what alcohol is capable of doing. It affects productivity, causes ill health and socially affects families and relationships.

A Psychiatrist and the Chief Executive Officer of the Mental Health Authority, Dr Akwasi Osei describes alcoholism in the country as “quite a serious problem”.

Because of informal or undocumented drinks of the locally brewed alcohol, data is not exactly reliable. There are some alcoholic beverages which are seen as “bitters” or herbal preparations, and alcohol is very easily accessible.

Alcohol is consumed at cultural events such as funerals and libation pouring and social events such as marriages and naming ceremonies, sports programmes etc. It is consumed during joyous, as well as sad occasions. Practically at every event, alcohol is consumed.

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The abuse of alcohol doesn’t seem to attract much attention. This is because it is a licit substance and is more or less a cultural thing; therefore, implicitly accepted. This is where it differs from ‘wee’ and the “new kid” on the block, Tramadol. Another reason why there isn’t much talk about alcohol abuse is that its effects are gradual while that of ‘wee’ and Tramadol are more acute and dramatic.

How does one become addicted?

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Dr Osei explains that alcohol is a drug, and a drug of addiction, meaning that it has a high potential or chance of making one dependent on it.
Alcohol causes some changes in the part of the brain called reward centres. It stimulates those centres, creating a feeling of elation and making one want to drink more.

This leads to changes which make the drinker dependent and want to go for more even when it is clear that it is damaging the body. At this point, the body begins to shake if alcohol is not taken.

One may vomit or even collapse if he/she does not get a refill. This explains why people get up as early as 4.30 a.m. or 5 a.m. and head for a tot before “they get well”. That is the addiction.

Health effects

Alcohol could have serious health consequences on the body. Its consumption affects the liver, giving cirrhosis or the hardening of the liver, which could later turn into cancer. It enlarges the heart, making it unable to function well and causing heart failure, which leads to the swelling of the feet.

The consumption of alcohol affects the pancreas, giving diabetes. It destroys the stomach, giving peptic ulcer; destroys the brain cells and thereby produces epilepsy; and it destroys the kidneys, leading to renal failure.

According to Dr Osei, the effects are so many but perhaps the most serious one for a pregnant woman is that she not only destroys her body but that of her unborn child through foetal alcohol syndrome, in which there may be mental retardation in the child.

The best way to prevent addiction is not to start. This is the advice of Dr Osei. Among those who get addicted, 10 per cent have a gene which dictates that once they start, they will continue until they get addicted.

If you have a family member with alcohol addiction, it is likely you are also carrying the gene; so the advice is to simply avoid it.
Addiction also depends on how much you drink, what you drink and how long you drink.

Daily drinking of a glass of ‘akpeteshie’ may make you addicted within four to six months. A week of a glass of beer taken once or twice a week may make you addicted in five years or not at all.

Akpeteshie, our local gin, contains a much higher percentage of pure alcohol or ethanol, the substance in alcohol. Drinking it less often, in small infrequent quantities or not at all will help one to stay off addiction.

Do our psychiatric hospitals see many of such cases?

The country’s psychiatric hospitals see a lot of alcohol addiction cases. Addiction may be the only reason why a person will come to the hospital with alcohol issues.

Many doctors have been trained to be able to handle alcohol addiction at any hospital. All doctors can see and refer patients when they find the need. Specifically, however, rehabilitation centres are being established. The Pantang Psychiatric Hospital has one, the Ankaful Psychiatric Hospital has another, as well as a number of private facilities, mostly in Accra.

Due to the many ill effects alcohol has and the fact that many do not seem to know about them, I think it is time to educate the public to know that what we so easily see as fun can be the cause of so much pain to us and our families.