Group promoting awareness of alcohol abuse

Focus is on binge drinking

Contributed Image Signs like this one showing the local connection to alcohol abuse are going up across Shawano County as part of the Healthy Shawano County Initiative.

It might not be news to health professionals or those working in the social services, but Shawano County has a drinking problem, with a rate of alcohol abuse that’s above the state average — in a state where the average is already well above the national norm.

According to county health rankings compiled this year, 27 percent of Shawano County adults drink excessively, compared to 24 percent statewide. Nationwide, 10 percent of Americans consume alcohol excessively, according to the statistics.

A local work group that was formed in 2010 out of the Healthy Shawano County Initiative to address alcohol and other drug abuse (AODA) issues recently launched a campaign aimed at getting people to start talking about the problem.

“We want to focus on having a conversation about the fact that we as a community use alcohol excessively,” said the Rev. Susan Phillips, pastor at First Presbyterian Church and chairperson of the Shawano-Menominee County AODA Work Group.

The group has recently posted signs around Shawano County sharing some facts and figures about the problem of binge drinking and its social and economic impact.

Fact sheets and discussion guides are also being distributed that the group hopes will spur “conversation about what’s healthy, what’s not healthy, how we can encourage healthier behavior related to alcohol,” Phillips said.

Signs are also being created in Menominee County by a group called Maehnow-Pematesen, which means “living in a good way,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the Menominee County group is already well ahead of their Shawano County counterparts, having been putting out fact sheets on alcohol abuse for several years.

The Menominee County signs will emphasize alternatives for having a good time that don’t involve drinking, such as learning the Menominee language, playing lacrosse, dancing, singing and drumming.

In Shawano County, getting a conversation started about alcohol abuse is a little more difficult, according to Phillips.

“There seems to be resistance to that very idea,” she said. “People resist having that conversation.”

Phillips said there was also some initial anxiety within the group that they might be seen as teetotalers chastising anyone who enjoys a social drink.

“That is absolutely not what we’re talking about,” she said.

The group’s focus has been raising awareness about the problem of binge drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks in a row for a man or four or more for a woman. In Wisconsin, the average binge drinker has nine drinks in a row, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, one in five Shawano County adults reported engaging in binge drinking.

“It’s really clear when you look at the statistics that we have a problem with alcohol in the state and within this community,” Phillips said. “We don’t seem to have clear awareness of how unusual our drinking behavior is here in Wisconsin. It’s our sense that people aren’t aware that it’s a problem.”

One fact that Phillips said might surprise people is the economic impact of binge drinking on the community.

According to a 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, excessive alcohol use was estimated to cost Shawano County $46.7 million per year, or $1,114 per person, in lost productivity, health care, law enforcement and other related costs.

Phillips said there are also attitudes toward alcohol in Wisconsin that need to be discussed.

“There’s an expectation here that you will drink that is different from other places I’ve lived,” she said.

Even kids’ birthday parties often have beer available for the adults, she noted, and some adults go so far as to host parties where beer is served to minors.

“Some parents want to rationalize that and say, ‘Well, then I know they’re safe,’” Phillips said. “It’s not legal, and it’s not safe, and it’s not healthy.”

Phillips said she is grateful for the amount of time and energy that so many people in the community have put forward in assisting the work group’s awareness project.

The group’s next step will be seeking partners in the community that can assist in making more options available for treatment of AODA issues.

In the meantime, it’s hoped the conversations about alcohol abuse will begin.

“The more we talk about it, the better we’ll be able to work together to make all of our communities healthier,” Phillips said.

ONLINE

Facts and figures regarding alcohol abuse in Wisconsin and Shawano County are included in a discussion guide available online at the Shawano-Menominee Counties Health Department website, www.co.shawano.wi.us/i/f/Final%20AODA%20Discussion%20Guide.pdf.