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Jason Clarke
Mental Health Service

Cry for help as new group says services for children of alcoholics are 'non-existent'

Children experiencing a parent’s misuse of alcohol can often be dismissed as acting out.

DESPITE GROWING AWARENESS, many children and adults are living with the trauma of parental alcohol misuse, according to Alcohol Action Ireland (AAI), but for now, there’s still a lack of awareness of this in the mental health services. 

Today at the Royal College of Physicians, AAI launched the Silent Voices initiative to raise awareness of the trauma of growing up with a parent or carer who misuses alcohol.

Those behind the initiative – Carol Fawsitt, Marion Rackard and Barbara Whelan – said there is no dedicated service to support those have lived with the effects of that experience.

“There has been little or no progress made in Ireland to address the trauma inflicted on the child, which may last well into adulthood,” said Fawsitt, chair of the AAI, and one of the founders of Silent Voices.

Opening up 

“Parental alcohol misuse, or the effect it has on children, rarely gets an air or an acknowledgement in Irish society”, Fawsitt said. 

Right now, “dedicated services for children so impacted are non-existent – it’s hard to believe,” she added.

In the coming years, the initiative wants to grow awareness of the harm alcohol can cause others, by working with practitioners and service providers. They will be engaging in national signposting services, so those seeking help will find it easier to know who to contact, and what to expect. 

The initiative wants to “open up” Ireland’s relationship with alcohol, said Fawsitt, and to have “the trauma of growing up in a house with alcohol abuse recognised as a trauma”.

By opening a conversation, she said, “and recognising the harms of parental alcohol misuse”, they hope that “teachers, youth leaders and family members will become more vigilant and become aware of whom to reach out to when an intervention is required.”

In her own experience, Fawsitt said that services, such as counselling “often don’t recognise the link between parental alcohol misuse and trauma in adult children”. For service providers, she said, “a greater recognition of parental alcohol misuse harm is critical”.

Silent Voices Jason Clarke Jason Clarke

Barriers to getting help 

With parental alcohol misuse, there is huge loyalty to parent, says Whelan, one of the drivers behind Silent Voices. 

Whelan has had mental health difficulties as a result of her experience of parental alcohol misuse. She spoke of feeling guilt, and the belief that “you don’t deserve help”, alongside the fear of speaking about it to family. 

“On top of that again, it’s because it’s not really well-known; it’s not seen,” she told The Journal

So we have all these barriers to getting help. If we could open up the conversation, it may be the case that people could begin to recognise things at an earlier stage.

“If I had known something about the long-term impacts of growing up with parental alcohol misuse, I would have gone for help 10 years earlier than I did,” she said. 

“It’s not about blame; we need to stop the cycle of damage,” said Fawsitt, adding that services must be provided, and must be “trauma informed”.

The worry or anxiety experienced by a child in these situations can result in behavioural and emotional issues, according to Dr Sharon Lambert from the Department of Applied Psychology at University College Cork, who spoke at the launch.

Teachers and caregivers may be unable to identify the cause of these issues, and put it down to bad behaviour, “rather than recognise that a child is struggling”, said Lambert. 

Well-informed education and healthcare professionals are vital to buffer the impact of parental problem drinking on children.

The usual response for mental health issues is to ‘go and speak to your GP”, Whelan says, stressing the difficulty in talking to a family doctor who treat the whole family, including the alcohol dependent parent, she said.

“So how can you talk to the GP?”

Alcohol Action Ireland estimates that approximately 400,000 people in Ireland today are adult children from alcohol-impacted families.

Silent Voices also plans to raise awareness by publishing anonymised personal stories of parental alcohol misuse on their online platform.         

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