Rural Australia’s silent struggle with alcohol addiction and the grassroots organisation encouraging radical change

By Sophie Gauvin | @sophgauvin

Alcohol is a social lubricant so heavily ingrained in Australian culture that it brings all kinds of people together, embodying the true-blue values of mateship. But when does this social norm become dangerous?

There was no way Hugh Dawson would have known the impact country drinking culture would have on him when he started work at Beetaloo Station during his gap year in 2015.

After finishing school, a freshly 18 Mr Dawson decided to journey to the Top End and seize a 12-month job opportunity as a ringer.

“I thought to myself, I’ve really got no idea what I’m getting myself into,” Mr Dawson says.

Six years later, Mr Dawson found himself named as the 2021 Northern Territory Young Achiever of the Year for his work as head stockman at the Barkly Pastoral Company, his contributions to the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association, and his work raising awareness of men’s mental health.

Regional health and wellbeing is something Mr Dawson’s time in the Territory has made him particularly passionate about.

The demanding stockman lifestyle lends itself to working hard and partying harder. With the isolating circumstances and limited sources of entertainment, drinking culture runs rife.

According to the Department of Health’s National Alcohol Strategy, people in remote areas are 2.4 times more likely than people in major cities to exceed the Australian Alcohol Guidelines.

Additionally, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) suggests that alcohol and drug treatment agencies in rural Australia have the highest rates of clients seeking help across all age demographics.

Alcohol and drug treatment agencies are seeing a higher percentage of rural Australians seeking treatment compared to city dwellers. (Image: AIHW)

In 2020, Mr Dawson decided to reassess his own drinking habits, as they were  affecting his mental wellbeing and performance.

“I felt pressure to drink as a way to fit in with the social environment I found myself in,” he says. “When I was younger, I saw no way to avoid it; I just wanted to fit in.

“I’d accepted the idea that I was having fun when I was drinking, but I realised that I had fun because of the people I surround myself with, not the booze.

“Young Australians start exposing themselves to alcohol around the same time they begin exploring the wider world after school. Developing independence, starting first jobs, meeting new people, and [being] amongst the uncertainty of new environments – it’s not unusual to rely on booze as a security blanket.”

Research reported by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) suggests that adolescents in regional and rural towns are up to 80 per cent more likely to consume alcohol at levels that are harmful to their health.

“It alarms me how heavy drinking or binge drinking has become so ingrained in the Australian culture, that we glorify our mates if they can ‘handle’ their booze,” Mr Dawson says.

Mr Dawson crossed paths with Sober in the Country (SITC) founder, Shanna Whan, in Alice Springs at the Northern Territory Cattleman’s Association, where the pair connected through a meaningful conversation about drinking culture in rural Australia.

SITC is a grassroots, not-for-profit organisation leading radical social change across rural Australia by challenging the narrative surrounding drinking culture.

The charity’s core pillars include social impact, peer support, advocacy, awareness and collaboration, and their campaign is simple: “it’s ok to say no”.

Established as a local support network, SITC now operates at a national level, playing a lead role in advocacy and education for better health in rural Australia.

In 2022, Ms Whan was named Australian of the Year Local Hero for her tireless leadership and community service.

Ms Whan has personally struggled with alcohol addiction and knows the harmful effects of Australia’s drinking culture.

After a near-death experience while under the influence in 2014, Ms Whan began her journey to sobriety.

“My story is everywhere; that is the reason it resonates so far and so wide,” she says.

“It never occurred to me that I may be an alcoholic. I thought they were homeless people that drank all day every day. The truth is, I was a high functioning alcoholic who was extraordinary by day and falling apart by night.

“I had pushed everyone away from me, and I knew I was going to die soon if I didn’t do something.”

SITC’s foundational quote from activist Desmond Tutu has inspired their upstream approach to help Australians before their battles with alcohol misuse overpower them.

“There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they are falling in.” – Desmond Tutu

“When I was in the early stages of my recovery, everyone was telling me to help others to help myself, so I started an anonymous meeting,” Ms Whan says. “And 90 per cent of the time, I was on my own.

“I learned the hard way that people will not come publicly in a small town because the risk of them being exposed is too great.

“You can’t be anonymous in a small town.”

But pretences don’t make issues disappear.

According to the ADF, alcohol addiction and dependency is common among rural farmers and fly-in-fly-out workers due to isolation from families and support networks, long working hours, financial and climatic challenges, and a high prevalence of mental illnesses.

In 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, then health minister, Greg Hunt, approved millions in additional funding for online support services, highlighting that overcoming addiction in isolation was an urgent health crisis.

Ms Whan emphasises the irony of that statement for rural Australians who experience isolation regularly.

“In the country, ‘iso’ is our normal, and these are the very same issues we have been working hard to raise awareness around for years,” she says.

“Alcohol usage is associated with isolation, loneliness, despair, [poor] mental health, and that part of the conversation is what gets left behind.”

SITC peer group, The Bush Tribe, connects these overlooked demographics and provides a safe community online that, for many, prevents further harm.

“In rural communities, there is a shared sense of casual alcoholism, and sometimes it takes hearing another person’s struggles to realise the gravity of your challenges,” Ms Whan says.

According to the ADF, the social acceptability of alcohol at community and social events is a prominent contributing factor to the higher rates of alcohol consumption in regional and remote areas.

The Bush Tribe challenges this norm in a safe space, prioritising a “mates supporting mates” approach, acknowledging rural Australians’ busy and remote lifestyle, and embracing the success of sharing stories rather than sticking to a rigid programme.

SITC has connected thousands of rural and remote Australians through The Bush Tribe since its inception, many of whom have pursued work and study in the sector of alcohol and other drugs to help others.

“Shanna [Whan] is making a genuine difference, and I can say firsthand that she is the driving force to start conversations in outback rec rooms and board rooms to critically reflect on how we use alcohol in the bush,” Mr Dawson says.

“After meeting with Shanna, I realised how I had failed to understand the effect of peer pressure.

“As a leader, I thought it was important that my team members enjoyed a drink on days off because of the socially accepted belief that you can’t have fun if you are not drinking.”

Reflecting on his behaviour, Mr Dawson quickly realised why his peers that chose to minimise their drinking in a social setting were not enjoying themselves.

“It wasn’t a lack of alcohol preventing my mates from having fun; I was making them feel uncomfortable by pressuring them to have a drink with me.

“I had failed as a leader, and most importantly as a friend.”

In April 2022, Mr Dawson ran the Geelong Half Marathon, raising almost $7000 for SITC to promote more important conversations around rural Australia’s relationship with alcohol.

Hugh Dawson raised almost $7000 to help fund SITC. (Image supplied)

“Running a half marathon is something I would have never dreamed of doing had I not decided to change my habits around drinking,” Mr Dawson says.

Still enjoying alcohol in moderation, Mr Dawson emphasises the importance of respect and self-awareness.

“If you care about your mates, don’t humbug them when they turn down booze; and before you encourage a mate that maybe takes it too far too often, just be mindful about what could be happening under the surface.”

SITC’s efforts to establish a more inclusive social environment in some of the most remote parts of Australia are driven by Ms Whan and her team’s hope for radical change.

“My vision for the future is a really simple one: I would love nothing more than to see a rural Australia in which a man or a woman can say ‘no thank you’ to a drink and leave it at that,” she says.

“We do not demonise drinking; we do not give a hard time to our mates who are enjoying a beer. That’s literally the antithesis of what we are talking about.

“We are making it socially acceptable when our mates say ‘no thanks’ or ‘not today’ to grog.”

SITC works collaboratively with Australia’s key alcohol awareness organisations to represent Australians who are out of sight and often out of mind.

If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s alcohol or other drug use, contact the National Alcohol and Other Drugs Hotline on 1800 250 015, or visit drughelp.gov.au.

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