April 23, 2011

RP-4: A mentor's story -- Should we talk about alcohol consumption?

A RISING NUMBER of youngsters have started consuming alcohol or smoking in their teens or when they are in high school or in college. Alcohol consumption and smoking are now gradually becoming part of social behaviour and part of the urban lifestyle.

 “Alcohol consumption is not appropriate for young people. We should discourage them and advise them not to get into something like that. It will ruin their future. They should be focusing on more important things at this age.”

We hear this a lot.

The traditional approach to discussing alcohol consumption usually borders on the premise that it’s just not acceptable, it’s inappropriate for that age, it’s immoral or simply wrong or dangerous, and so we end up sounding preachy and talking down to young people.

There is a counter argument: “A lot of people, including adults, drink, and yet they are not alcoholics. So what’s wrong?”

So how do you discuss this with a young person without appearing to be patronising or condescending or judgmental? How do you ask a youngster to avoid alcohol when it seems to be socially acceptable and a part of lifestyle he or she aspires to? Should we as mentors even discuss alcohol consumption with the young people we work with?

Perhaps we need to draw a distinction between consumption and addiction. So when does alcohol consumption reach a stage that it needs intervention?

Alcoholism or alcohol abuse/addiction is compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcohol (despite its negative effects on the person’s health, relationships, and circumstances).

More and more parents and educators are now shifting the emphasis to awareness of the possible risks involved or consequences of alcohol addiction and substance abuse instead of ‘what’s right and wrong’. In a way, it allows a real conversation without a disapproving tag or tone, allowing youngsters to be more receptive and participate in a discussion and possibly then make an informed decision. In addition, educators also now help with information on ways to detect signs of addiction and options to seek help for rehabilitation if faced with such a predicament (referrals to social workers or counsellors, etc.).

Alcohol addiction could also result from not being able to cope with challenges in life. It could be a possible escape from current problems or an escape from present circumstances. This is probably why uncontrolled drinking is considered potential high-risk behaviour for youngsters from vulnerable or troubled or underprivileged backgrounds.


Last year, we came across a story from a mentor at a Reflective Practice Session*. For four or five months, Vikash had been mentoring James**, who lived in a slum community in Bangalore. James is about 15 years old and not too keen on academics although he goes to school. He has a keen interest in sports, particularly football.

Vikash shared with the group his concern about the fact that his mentee, at this age, was drinking almost every week along with his friends. Vikash felt it was as a result of peer pressure. Vikash also told the group that he had planned an intervention for his mentee. Vikash had access to alcohol-addiction support groups and intended to introduce James to one such group or create one.


After hearing Vikash’s story, his fellow mentors appreciated the fact that Vikash had noticed this aspect of his mentee’s behaviour and the fact that his mentee shared this with him meant there was a certain comfort level in discussing alcohol consumption. It’s also good, they said, that Vikash had thought about discussing this with his mentee further and had thought of possible options such as self-help groups or alcoholic support groups.

The group, however, cautioned him on moving too fast or pushing rehabilitation even before understanding the current situation and his mentee’s perspective on alcohol consumption or even seeking his approval for such an idea. Perhaps there is a need to inquire about external factors encouraging his drinking was there trouble at home? Or was it just a case of peer pressure?

The group suggested that, before discussing rehabilitation, perhaps awareness or a general open discussion was the immediate need at this stage to confirm if James really understood what alcohol addiction was. At this point we also did not know if James himself saw his alcohol consumption as a problem or knew of the consequences of uncontrolled drinking.

The group agreed that the topic should be introduced to James with care. Also, care should be taken about the tone used there should not be a disconnect or adverse effect on the mentor-mentee relationship. Such an intervention for rehabilitation (joining a self-help group) is a big step and would need James’s consent and even his family’s.

If James is not comfortable with a discussion on the negatives of alcohol consumption, then talking about rehabilitation will probably not be possible. Pushing such a conversation may create further distance between mentor and mentee or make James feel as if he were being judged.

Perhaps it’s better to let the conversation casually revolve around awareness of possible consequences and see if there is an expressed need for help or interest; only then should the intervention/rehabilitation options be discussed, and again, only if the youngster consents to  it. We may not be able to change young persons’ behaviour but we may be able to educate them and let them decide what they want for themselves.
  • Compiled by Jeeno P. Jacob, Programme Anchor — Dream Mentoring Programme | Dream A Dream

* Once a month, mentor meetings are organised by Dream A Dream. The session is a forum to discuss challenges and seek support and advice from fellow mentors, senior mentors, and Dream A Dream

** Name of mentee has been changed to protect her identity and maintain anonymity.

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