By Richard Bryant-Jefferies, a former counsellor in the UK and author of the book Counselling the Person Beyond the Alcohol Problem.

I have become increasingly concerned that we are seeing the emergence of what I term ‘the addictive society’ in many parts of the world: drugs, sex, gaming, internet communication, gambling, eating, exercising, TV (soaps, game shows, so called ‘reality’ TV), fascination with ‘celebrity’, the list seems endless. And, of course, added to this is probably our favourite drug – alcohol.

We see the anti-social effects of alcohol use: the chaos in our Accident and Emergency departments, the struggle that the police have to maintain order on our high streets of an evening, the rates of alcohol fuelled domestic violence and unwanted pregnancy and the damage that alcohol can have on people’s physical and mental health. All of these are rightly alarming and need addressing.

However, there is another side to this, and it is this that I sought to address in my first book on this topic, Counselling the Person Beyond the Alcohol Problem, and in subsequent titles. The title captures the focus that I think is so important and which gets forgotten: The person – the mother or father, son or daughter, sister or brother – the human being who, for whatever their personal and individual reasons, have developed a habit of problem drinking – put simply, drinking that causes problems either to the individual, their family or wider society.

Alcohol changes mood. For some people it dampens down their emotions, creating a kind of ‘psychological numbing.’ For others it can lead to a release of tension and emotion. It seems to me that there is an important and often overlooked question to ask here: Why, in many societies that have so much to offer, do people need the effects of alcohol? It has become such a core feature of the social experience, which can lead to, as I have heard so many clients say over the years, a need to drink heavily and regularly ‘to feel normal’, ‘to feel good’, ‘to feel able to face the world.’ And perhaps more concerning today is the question: Why do so many young people need alcohol to the point of drinking themselves to oblivion?

Counselling for alcohol problems is a process in which the therapist seeks to genuinely get to know the client. They have to understand what the world looks like through their client’s eyes and the role that alcohol has for them. It has to be individual, focused on the person, not centred on textbook-based assumptions. The experience of the individual has to be heard and acknowledged. A certain quality of relationship is required. The therapist has to experience and communicate empathy and understanding, and to experience a genuine warmth and a caring for the client. And they have to be real, open, honest (congruent) within themselves and in what they say.

The person with the alcohol problem has to be able to develop trust for the therapist, and that’s a challenge. So many people with drinking problems find it hard to trust others, and particularly where that other person is regarded as threatening their alcohol-centred lifestyle which has become such an embedded feature of who they are and what they do.

Of course, there are lots of ways of reducing alcohol-use: higher prices linked to alcohol strength; reduced availability (opening times and retailers); more images promoting the experience of non-alcohol linked social activities, etc. But we also need to start to get serious about counselling the person who, for whatever their personal reasons, are having their health, their lives, their relationships and their careers seriously damaged by the effects of their alcohol use.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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