Drink Tank

Improving the health of Australia, one Sunday at a time

Over the last ten years FARE has invested more than $115 million, helped 750 organisations and funded over 1,400 projects addressing the harms caused by alcohol misuse. One of these FARE-funded programs was an evaluation of Hello Sunday Morning (HSM).

According to the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, in Australia, alcohol is second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of drug-related death and hospitalisation. Alcohol accounts for 13 per cent of all deaths among 14 to 17-year-old Australians — with approximately one Australian teenager dying and more than 60 hospitalised each week from alcohol-related causes.

It is this kind of information that inspired Chris Raine to establish HSM, a blogging website that encourages young people to undertake a period of sobriety and reflect on their drinking habits. To date, more than 4,500 HSMers have chosen to take a break from alcohol and reflect on its role in their lives.

HSM encourages participants to learn more about themselves, their friends and Australia as a hard-drinking nation. Some people even experience an epiphany of sorts, with one participant describing the HSM blog (which includes posts from all participants) as ‘a wealth of insight into existing’.

Another participant said:

The beauty of the idea is that the individual doesn’t have to oppose drinking. I don’t. I enjoy drinking; to excess, even, on occasion. But the fact that I’m not drinking for three months … forces introspection. 

(Days into HSM: 25; male)

That quote resonated with me because too often people who challenge the Australian drinking culture are dismissed as socially-stunted wowsers. And that’s not what it’s all about. Similarly:

Many smart people have said to me about HSM – surely abstinence isn’t the point?  Surely it’s about moderation? And while I agree with them – my comeback is always the same.  Until you abstain, you never realise how easy it is to say yes and how hard it is to say no. And more importantly, you don’t build up any capacity for refusal.

(Days into HSM: 42; male; emphasis in original)

The most common responses when I say I’m not drinking are ‘oh you’re so responsible’ or ‘wow you’ve got so much willpower’ or even ‘I couldn’t do that it’s too much fun’ and I quite often perceive these comments to really mean ‘wow aren’t you boring’. While I accept that you don’t need alcohol to be the life of the party, I often feel excluded by not drinking.

(Days into HSM: 84; female)

The same participant goes on to reflect on the Australian drinking culture:

The pervasiveness of drinking in Australia is not something I really noticed until I went to … a dry zone in [the United Arab Emirates]. It was refreshing to be somewhere where night time activities included visiting galleries, hanging out in tea houses, walking along the promenade, going to the movies – all with zero expectation that alcohol would be involved … I guess I’m stating the obvious by saying that sobriety would be easier if our culture were less boozey.

(Days into HSM: 84; female)

Often choosing not to drink while in a social setting is found to be somehow threatening or judgmental by those who are drinking:

When [my friends] realised I wasn‘t drinking they were confused. Are you working early?, are you sick?, are you on medication? No, no and no. And then came the question I should have been but wasn’t prepared for. HA! How bad did you mess up? Come on, tell us!

(Days into HSM: 3)

Support sometimes came from unlikely sources:

The big surprise came from my closest mates boyfriend, footy jock, cultural can crusher, drowning drunk, the boys boy, he was all for this new adventure of mine, gave me a whole heap of encouragement and even suggested a few tips for getting Hello Sunday Morning out there.

(Days into HSM: 7; female)

But HSM is more than just about abstinence:

It is no longer about sobriety; I am starting to find myself … HSM is helping me to discover and commit to the choices of who I want to be.

(Days into HSM: 42; female)

FARE is more than just about abstinence too. It’s about supporting research and initiatives that help to address alcohol-related harms. This evaluation indicates that HSM does have an impact on the drinking attitudes and behaviour of participants. It has provided a framework for future evaluations of HSM which helps to promote the sustainability of such innovative approaches to safer drinking.

Recent research by health care organisation, Bupa, has found that Australia has the second-highest number of drinkers,[1] following Britain. Having worked in child protection, youth justice, criminal justice and the mental health systems, I have seen the damage and despair that alcohol can cause. Any steps we can take to honour choice, respect diversity, encourage thoughtful action and challenge the obligation that Australians must drink across social and cultural settings should be part of the journey to improve the health of Australia.

Katherine McLachlan

I have a legal practicing certificate, but am not a lawyer. I have a psych degree, but am not a psychologist. When my daughter was born, I wrote on her birth certificate that I was a criminologist. My low level drinking makes me a disappointment to my father and a boring potential (Hello Sunday Morning) HSMer.

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