More young binge drinkers a worry: Experts

Photo: ST

He drank till he blacked out. Then he drank some more.

Yet scientist Thomas Tan (not his real name) reached for the bottle time and again.

Like many alcoholics, Mr Tan began drinking in his teens, "after we booked out of army on weekends and partied".

"I was shy and introverted, but alcohol transformed me into the life of the party," the 38-year-old said.

The drinking continued into his 20s, when alcohol would help him unwind and was a reward after a long, hard week.

"But after a few drinks, the more dislikeable side of me came out," he said. "I was sarcastic, I character-assassinated my friends and they stopped hanging out with me."

At his worst, he could down an entire bottle of hard liquor in a day, but he did not see a problem.

"I was still functional. There was no complaint about my work," said Mr Tan.

Things went downhill from there.

Without friends, he drank alone at home. In his late 20s, he went on binge-drinking sessions to cope with pressures of failing his doctoral studies.

"I went from blackout to blackout."

Luckily for him, he got help in time, at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Singapore. Mr Tan went through a programme which has since helped him stay dry for three years.

With more people here turning to the bottle, drinking harder and starting younger, more alcoholics are also seeking help for their drinking problems, from psychiatrists or fellowships like AA.

At Singapore's largest addiction treatment centre, the National Addictions Management Service (Nams), counsellors saw 433 new cases from April last year to March, compared with 415 cases a year earlier.

Private psychiatrist Munidasa Winslow, known for his work on addictions, saw one new case of alcohol abuse a week four years ago, but now he sees two to three new cases. Psychiatrist Thomas Lee estimates there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of alcohol abuse cases he has seen in the past three years.

Some patients are dragged to clinics by a family member, while others signed up voluntarily.

At Nams and psychiatric clinics, many who seek help are aged 45 and above. But this could be after years of drinking.

Psychiatrists say the greater concern is the growing number of binge drinkers in their teens and 20s.

"Many of them have not hit rock bottom or felt the full impact of their drinking, so they don't come forward," noted Dr Lee.

"They can still function normally at work, so they don't think they have a problem."

Nams counsellor Tan Ming Hui is particularly worried about teens and young adults who binge drink continuously as this is especially harmful for their developing brain, which can make them "vulnerable to developing addiction" and affect their thinking abilities later in life.

In Singapore, 18.7 per cent of men and 12.2 per cent of women aged 18 to 29 binge drink, which is defined as having four or more alcoholic drinks in one session for women, and five or more for men.

Help is at hand for alcoholics in Singapore, said the professionals, but first, they have to recognise that they have a problem.

For Mr Tan, alarm bells rang when he got so unwell that he would vomit after drinking half a bottle of wine.

"I would throw up, drink and throw up again," he said.

"I knew that drinking was a futile exercise, but I could not stop my mental obsession with alcohol."

He finally went through AA's 12-step self-awareness programme, which helped him battle his demons.

Mr Tan, who now works as a biomedical researcher and exercises three times a week, added: "I was on the brink, but I'm glad I chose the right path. I've got a clean bill of health. I am truly happier now."

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