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Casual alcoholism, rural Australia and women's health

29 August 2018

Shanna Whan

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), a Federal Government body, alcohol is consumed by more than 80 per cent of Australians. Statistics like that make alcohol the most widely used drug in Australia.

A fact sheet put together by the National Rural Health Alliance found that in rural and remote Australia, alcohol consumption and its associated harms are consistently higher than in urban areas and the proportion of those drinking at risky levels increases with increasing remoteness.

One of the finalists in this year’s AgriFutures Rural Women's Awards knows the ‘lived’ experience of these cold hard facts, intimately.

Shanna Whan (above) is from Narrabri in northwest New South Wales. Much of her life has been spent on the land, working in agriculture. She is now a freelance photographer and a qualified health coach, dividing her time between travelling in her freelance photography role and working to tackle the complex issue of alcohol abuse in rural Australia.

Shanna’s own health battle to be alcohol-free began some years ago, but it wasn’t until February 2015 that she reached a place where she was able to change her life and stop drinking. 

Much has been written about the strong drinking culture in Australian society. Alcohol consumption is associated with pleasure, celebration and ‘rites of passage’. Drinking has also been associated by some with values such as ‘self-reliance’, ‘hardiness’ and ‘mateship’.

Research shows people in rural areas experience disproportionately high levels of alcohol misuse and its associated burden of disease and injury. This, it has been surmised, is due to a range of factors characteristic of rural areas including lack of venues for recreation, stoic attitudes about help-seeking, economic and employment disadvantage, and less access to healthcare professionals and alcohol treatment services.

Shanna’s experience inspired her to bring “an honest and well overdue conversation about modern day addiction out into the open to help to reduce the numbers of high-risk, high-functioning community members slipping through the cracks in rural and remote Australia”.

She sums herself up as an example of the high-risk, high-functioning community member who slipped through the cracks: “Over the years my pattern of drinking became progressively worse. I couldn’t go to a party and stop at one or two drinks.

“If I started, most of the time I could not stop.

“I’d wake up after a social occasion in shame, guilt, and self-hate. I loathed who I was and how I behaved. Because I knew that the real me would never in a million years have done or said those things. And yet I still refused to consider the possibility of alcoholism. Because I STILL only drank after five, and I STILL didn’t drink every day. That was the level of my ignorance.”

There are fierce stigmas surrounding everyday alcohol abuse; what Shanna’s coined ‘casual alcoholism’ - and others call ‘wine o’clock’ - that enable the abuse to continue, causing further harm and putting individuals at risk. Facing the underlying causes of casual alcoholism - mental illness, trauma, depression, anxiety - this is something Shanna is tackling head-on through sharing her lived experience with humour and candour.

There are, however, many barriers to people seeking help with alcoholism in rural areas: distance, time, privacy, social stigma, lack of services and expertise. Shanna hopes to address these through an online platform that enables rural people to ‘virtually’ gather, chat, learn and share.

Members will have access to webinars, live support meetings, blogs and facts and links to alcohol-related therapies, experts, recovery groups and treatment centres.

Through integrating a holistic health and wellness approach, Shanna aims to provide community members who are battling with alcohol addiction a safe environment to access the support and information they need to change their lives.

Women's Health Week is just around the corner 3-7 September. Read more and sign up to be part of it.

The AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award 2018 national winner will be announced in October and nominations open for 2019 on 3 September. See here.

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