An alcoholic at age nine

30 July 2014 - 02:01 By Rea Khoabane
Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

Kicking the habit is particularly difficult for Michael - he has been drinking beer every day for about two years. His story is not uncommon but the fact that he is just 9-years-old and in rehab is.

And if he cannot find beer he is forced to take two puffs of dagga to make it through the day.

It does not help that the Grade 2 boy lives with alcoholic parents.

But Michael, from Gauteng, is among an increasing number of children between the ages seven and 13 being treated for the alcoholism in the country.

According to the Department of Social Development, 242 children around the country were referred to the South African National Council on Alcoholism (SANCA) this year – 69 of them strictly for alcohol abuse.

SANCA national director, Cathy Vos, said the numbers have increased slowly but surely, going up by one percent annually since 2011.

“An average teenager starts drinking at the age 14, by the time they’re 22 years old they will be alcoholics. In the past years alcoholics were in their 40’s and now you find at a much younger age,'' said Vos.

She said one of the main reasons for the increase in alcoholism among children is the breakdown of the family unit. Many children are also left to care for themselves and often turn to the bottle.

Michael was just seven when he took his first beer.

Two months ago his school referred him to SANCA after teachers suspected that something was wrong. They took him for an alcohol and drug test - the results were positive. 

A social worker, who did not want to be named, said the boy has access to alcohol every day and he knows how just much his body can handle to act normally. “Sometimes he takes two puffs of dagga just to get on with his day,'' she said.

Michael is an out-patient at a treatment facility and has been attending weekly counseling sessions with his social worker. If this fails, she will have to refer him to an in-patient programme.

His parents, she said, are alcoholics too. Despite this, the department has failed to act and he is still in their care.

"In this case the department expects the SANCA social worker to treat the matter holistically by helping the entire family through recommendations for rehabilitation programmes. Meanwhile the department will dispatch its social worker to interact with SANCA, the family and the [boy]. If the situation demands removal of the affected [child], then the department will effect such measures, '' said Thembe Mohatle, spokesman for Gauteng Social Development MEC Faith Mazibuko.

Tamaryn Davis, a social worker for SANCA in the Free State, indicated the worse case she dealt with was a 28-year-old man who started drinking at the age of 11. By 13 he was addicted to dagga and at 18 he was hooked on inhalants, CAT and cocaine.

"Through exploring his past, the main reason for his first drink was peer pressure and wanting to be 'cool','' said Davis.

Child and family counsellor Stephanie Dawson-Cosser said, children do not have the capacity psychologically to absorb the alcohol and therefore will not find it toxic to their body initially, but over time they will build a tolerance level and the brain will crave it.

According to SANCA, alcohol poses severe long term consequences for children including memory loss, chronic pain in muscles, hypertension and psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Professor Bronwyn Myers, chief specialist scientist at the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drug Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council, said effective intervention programmes are key to tackling the scourge.

"These programmes should be made widely available to young children before they start drinking so that we can delay the onset of alcohol use for as long as possible.  Efforts are also needed to strengthen families and communities, because... these young children often get their alcohol from older siblings and family members and also alcohol use occurs within the context of communities,'' said Myers.

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