On the drink: starting the difficult conversations about alcohol consumption in the bush


Blake Danilczak

Alcohol consumption increased in Australia during the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen Australians turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for widespread lock downs, loss of employment, and separation from family.

In a recent study, the Australian National University (ANU) reported that one-in-four women and one-in-five men were drinking more since the pandemic began.

Alcohol awareness experts are concerned that COVID-19 is significantly harming people in regional Australia, who were already disadvantaged by social taboo and limited support services.

National Services Manager of Alcohol and Drug Education Specialists, Michael Donehue says that people in small communities are impacted by isolation and peer pressure.

“In regional areas there’s not as much to do, which might lead to people drinking more. You just get the boys together and have beers around the fire,” Mr Donehue said.

“You don’t want to be the odd one out. It can be daunting to sit there with a bottle of water or soft drink. People just don’t want to be picked on.”

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) found that 70 per cent of Australians were drinking more since COVID-19.

This does not surprise Shanna Whan, a recovered alcoholic and founder of Sober in the Country, who says the pandemic has increased the stress on people in regional Australia.

“I myself had to overcome alcoholism, in a rural town, in isolation, without support and without people speaking about it. I nearly lost my life to alcoholism,” Ms Whan said.

“I know there are sways of rural men and women out there having a quiet battle within their communities and people do not know. This is a potential crisis within a crisis.”

General Practitioner, Dr Peter Lewis says that increased drinking during COVID-19 is causing a range of physical and mental health problems.

“I’m seeing depression, particularly suicidal depression, which is associated with sleep disturbance, anxiety and mood swings,” Dr Lewis said.

“This includes guilt, aggression, and social problems – including mental, physical and domestic abuse, along with relationship problems with the spouses and children of alcoholics.

“Weight gain is a huge risk factor, high blood pressure, diabetes, gastric bleeding, pancreatitis, and liver failure, cancer of the breast, cancer of the bowel, and cancer of the oesophagus.”

Shanna Whan says Regional Australia is suffering from a lack of health and support services during this crisis.

“Casual alcoholism is something that is very problematic in regional areas, as there is a great reduction is services and increased isolation,” Ms Whan said.

“We can’t access confidential face-to-face support, but we can get beer and we can get in cheaply and it’s been touted as a reward that you should definitely have.”

Shanna Whan is the founder of ‘Sober In The Country’.

Shanna Whan says Sober in the Country is tackling regional alcoholism and achieving results. She says that they are changing the bush culture and that a growing wave of people are ready to speak openly about this issue.

“We’re reaching tens of thousands every day through social media. We’ve taken one of the most difficult chats of all time and cracked it open. We’re doing it through nothing more than honest yarns with our mates,” Ms Whan said.

“We have created like a ‘Me Too’ movement around people recognising that they want to drink less or nothing at all, but are too scared of the social consequences.”

If you require assistance, please contact Life Line on 13 11 14.

In this audio feature, Blake Danilczak reports on the way advocates are encouraging individuals to support one another