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Sober in the Country: Rural health advocate Shanna Whan fights to save farmers from self-medicating with alcohol

David Claughton, Monday August 19, 2019 - 11:59 EST
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Shanna Whan has been campaigning for more support for people in the bush who want to go sober. - ABC

The drought is pushing more farmers to drink, but one woman has campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the unspoken costs of alcohol abuse and misuse in the outback.

Shanna Whan is a rural advocate, a finalist in the NSW Rural Woman of the Year Awards, and the founder of a volunteer-led support group called Sober in the Country, which supports more than 250 people.

Ms Whan believes the escalating drought, financial hardship, as well as the uncertainty and isolation of rural life is driving more people to drink.

"You're worried about things and it makes it a little bit easier if you have a drink … but that can very quickly escalate to a whole new level," she said.

Ms Whan has fought her own battle with alcoholism and knows firsthand the difficulties of accessing treatment in regional areas.

Anonymous recovery groups are often the first place people go to for support, but there were none in her area.

"So I started one to try to help others and for two years I sat mostly alone in a building hoping somebody would walk in."

The reason, she said, was that a city-based model relying on anonymity was ineffective in a small, close-knit community.

"We can't help people if they're too afraid to walk in the door," she said.

She argued that country people were also not getting the help they needed because they could drink heavily but still function, still hold down a job, and manage a family.

"We think it [alcoholism] is about homeless people and we're discomforted by people like me. It holds a mirror to other people who drink far too much, far too often," she said.

''I am a typical example of a high-functioning rural professional who slipped through the cracks again and again, despite trying everything that was suggested.''

Worse in the country?

Alcohol consumption overall in Australia is trending downwards, at $36 billion per year, according to the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.

and have less access to treatment for alcohol addictions.

Getting treatment is also more difficult if you live in a remote area, where .

And a recent study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that teenagers living outside the major cities , particularly at levels that are harmful to their health.

Bush drinking culture

A drinking culture is firmly established in the bush, and it starts young.

Sarah Rossiter's dad taught her how to drink at an early age.

"Because it's a life skill you need to know. People don't trust you if you don't drink beer," she said.

Ms Rossiter, now a community worker in southern Queensland, said drinking was almost a requirement in her former role as a consultant to the cropping industry, and she has a theory about why that is.

"Approximately 70–80 per cent of farmers are extremely introverted and most of the time they struggle in social situations," she said.

Alcohol is a socially acceptable way to overcome that.

"It is the only drug you have to justify why you're not taking it," she said.

Ms Rossiter is concerned about the impact of the drought and the increasing use of alcohol as a form of self-medication by famers.

"Some of them have quite severe depression and you can't say, 'You've got to give up the alcohol for a while'," she said.

"You've just got to support them, give them some information and say, 'I'm around if you want'."

Shame and pain

Farm manager Matt Tonkin decided to stop drinking alcohol when his body started to give way and his doctor told him he was at risk of dying.

He was drinking to escape the pressure of rising farm debt and to subdue his fear of losing the property that had been in the family for five generations.

It did not work.

After the farm was sold, Mr Tonkin took up a job in real estate and livestock marketing and his drinking problem continued.

"At knock-off time I'd have three to four schooners, play golf and drink 15 more, and then drink from lunchtime Sunday. I lost so many days," he said.

Matt was depressed and having difficulty in his marriage when his doctor gave him a serious warning.

"I had problems breathing, gastro problems, and the doctor said I was pre-diabetic and that if I continued [to drink] I'll probably die," he said.

In the end he said it was 'divine intervention' that got him back on track.

"I went back to church and asked for guidance and got a tap on the shoulder," he said.

He managed to cut back on the drinking after that, but it still was not enough.

It was hearing an interview with Ms Whan on the radio that finally woke him up.

"I hadn't classified myself as an alcoholic, but I spoke to Shanna who said, 'You know, you're planning your life around having a drink, so technically you're an alcoholic'," Mr Tonkin said.

He said it was the most humbling experience of his life.

"You're identifying a weakness. You're saying you haven't got control, and for me that was hard," he said.

"We're a large family, people are held in high regard. You work hard, play hard, and you realise that you can't fit in that sphere anymore."

Matt has lost 18 kilograms since going sober, his gastro problems are gone — along with the muscle soreness and arthritic pain — and his blood sugar levels are back to where they should be.

"I'm as healthy and happy as you could expect to be," he said.

Going cold turkey

Farm worker Bob — not his real name — realised he had a problem with alcohol when his wife left him.

He grew up in the country, had been drinking since he was 15 and at 40 he was an alcoholic.

"I come from a long line of drinkers. There was always booze. I thought it was the done thing — what men did," Bob said.

He had been to court for drink driving and he was spending tens of thousands of dollars a year on cigarettes and alcohol.

"There were things we didn't do because I was watching my money. I was grumpy, cranky and turned everything into an argument," he said.

It is two years since Bob's wife left him.

"She couldn't handle how we were functioning as a family anymore and she put the three kids in the car and drove away," he said.

Ms Whan played a part in Bob's recovery as well.

He called her for support on the day the car went down the driveway and she asked him a series of questions to confirm if he was an alcoholic — he answered "yes" to 12 out of 14.

"I have an addictive nature so I knew I'd have to go cold turkey," Bob said.

He went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but it was never a good fit.

"I went four or five times but it was dragging me down," he said.

Bob wanted to get his family back and that was enough motivation for him to give up the grog, but the first month was very difficult.

"Day three to five everything was cramping. I had fevers and it felt like everything was collapsing," he said.

Bob has been sober for two years now and his wife and kids have come home.

"I still want a beer and a smoke every day, but it's all or nothing for me," he said.

Bob urged anyone who wants to be sober to seek help.

"Don't try and do it alone. It's so tough and you need people with experience to help you through," he said.

To drink or not to drink

Drinking put an end to Lachie Cameron's career as an elite sportsman.

He experienced mood swings, isolation and manic episodes that ended with fights with his wife, but he was able to cut back without treatment and he now runs a gym in regional NSW.

"I'm pretty happy with my life, now I have a family and a business," he said.

As a fitness instructor, Mr Cameron can see the impact of excessive drinking among his clients so he is a big fan of drinking less.

But he said it took courage in regional areas, where the drinking culture was still so strong.

"You have a choice though, and you're probably more of a man if you stand up and say, 'I'm not having a beer'," he said.

The ABC acknowledges the support of Shanna Whan and the Sober in the Country network in producing this story.


© ABC 2019

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