Module 12: working with intoxicated young people: learner's workbook

2.1 What is intoxication and why is it a problem?

Page last updated: 2004

Intoxication is often thought of in extreme terms such as when someone is 'drunk' or 'off their head' with drugs. In fact, some degree of intoxication occurs with any single dose of alcohol or other drugs. Intoxication is the term used to describe any change in perception, mood, thinking processes and motor skills that results from the effect of a drug(s) on our central nervous system.

It is important to understand why young people might choose to become intoxicated, and to consider this in the context of youth and youth culture. Life is difficult for many young people as they struggle to define their identities and cope with many of the pressures of adolescence. Adolescence can be a confusing time for many young people. Frustration, anger and trauma can be a direct result of environmental and individual circumstances.

It is therefore, important to be aware that intoxication may be used as a mechanism for coping with pressures resulting from a young person's situation. Adolescence is, as well, a time of happiness, experimentation, celebration and fun; just as adults derive pleasure from intoxication, so can young people. Sharing an intoxicated time with friends can be a bonding experience. It can heighten a sense of group membership and belonging. Risk-taking is also a normal part of development and experimenting with psychoactive drugs is just one of the many risks that some young people will take during this time of great change.

So when is intoxication a problem if there is the potential for pleasure to be gained? Apart from the obvious issues relating to the illegality of some drugs and the health risks associated with the mode of administration (e.g. injection, inhaling), a small proportion of young people may also develop dependency as a result of frequent episodes of intoxication. Perhaps the most concerning issue of all is that risky activities of all sorts increase, even with low levels of intoxication.

Since young people generally tend to engage in more adventurous and risky behaviours, the potential for harm is elevated considerably when they become intoxicated. A huge proportion of all alcohol and other drug-related problems are due to intoxication, and deaths and injuries due to intoxication (accident, overdose, self-harm) are very high in young people (NHMRC, 2001).

Task - writing exercise
A young person's experience of intoxication
Your values and beliefs
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Task - writing exercise

Reflect on a time when you were intoxicated, preferably an occasion when you were with others. (If you can't think of an occasion then think of a time when a friend or relative was intoxicated.)

Question - What was it like?

Question - What happened?

Question - How did other people react to you?

Question - What would you have liked to happen?

Discuss the following with other learners or colleagues:
  • What have you learnt from this reflection?
  • How would you have liked to be treated when intoxicated?
  • What were your needs?
  • What are the needs of young people when they are intoxicated?

A young person's experience of intoxication

Workplace learning activity - writing/brainstorm exercise, group activity

At your workplace, talk to a young person at an appropriate time about their experiences of intoxication and write down their responses. If the nature of your work makes such a discussion difficult or compromises your role (e.g. some police personnel may feel this exercise is inappropriate), then conduct the exercise using your own (or a friend or relative's) experience of intoxication.

Question - What are the young people's views and experiences of intoxication?

Question - How do they feel about being intoxicated? How do they feel about other young people being 'off their face' when they are not?

Question - How do young people view adult intoxication? Do they see this as being different to a young person's intoxication?

Question - Do young people consider a different type of 'high' (from drugs that are popular or seen as off limits) better or worse? What are their reasons?

Question - What do you think may be some of the harms associated with intoxication?

Answer - (Write your answer, then check the possible answers page.)
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Issues and awareness

The majority of young people will not experience problems related to dependent use. Most of their difficulties will arise from intoxication (e.g. drinking at hazardous or risky levels) or regular use (e.g. a couple of drinks each night with friends). However, long-term use in a smaller proportion of excessive users will lead to some dependence-related problems as they develop a tolerance to the drug and a need to use for both psychological and physical reasons.

The issue of harmful drug use should be raised with young people both to assess the patterns of use and to increase awareness about ways that they can reduce the potential for harm to themselves and others if they do choose to become intoxicated. It is also important to remember that young people may not be aware of the harms associated with intoxication. They may feel invincible, and believe that the benefits of intoxication far outweigh the potential harms.

Your values and beliefs

This is a good point at which to examine your own values and beliefs regarding intoxication. It is possible that some of your responses have been shaped by positive or negative experiences you have had of intoxication and that these experiences may also have been influenced by your role as a frontline worker.

Task - writing exercise

Rank these statements on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the most disturbing to you, 10 being the least disturbing. Use each number once only.
  • A 14-year-old smoking a joint

  • An 18-year-old drinking his eighth glass of rum at a nightclub

  • A 17-year-old school girl smoking a cigarette

  • A young man shooting up heroin in a public toilet

  • A 15-year-old girl staggering blind drunk in a local park about to throw up

  • A 16-year-old female prostitute working the streets to get money to support her amphetamine habit

  • A couple of 12-year-olds sniffing glue in a park

  • A group of intoxicated young people leaving the pub and getting into a car and driving home
Question - Can you identify any emerging themes from your responses? What are they? Can you draw any conclusions about your attitudes? You may like to compare your responses to those of your friends or colleagues.
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