A reminder of our demographic context
Namibia has a small population of 2.5 million people of which majority of the population are youthful – meaning most Namibians are children below the age of 15 years. Our key productive working age group is between the ages of 25 and 54 years. An average Namibian can live up to the age of 64 years.
Legal age of alcohol consumption is 18 years but children as young as 10 years consumes alcohol in Namibia. Although we have a drink “sensibly rule”, the WHO recommends alcohol consumption for both women and men at 14 units per week – equivalent to six beers (330ml) or seven glasses of wine. However, this is not the case in our context, as consumption for men are above 28 units per week and for women above 21 units per week. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we are ranked the fifth drunkest country in Africa.
Our general attitude towards alcohol is nonchalant. We glamorise or minimise alcohol consumption and often say “I don’t drink much, I only drink during weekends or occasionally” not taking into consideration the number of units that we consume at that time. Drinking alcohol has become our main social activity as a result, we can easily move from drinking one beer to a whole crate or from a glass of wine to 5 bottles of wine in a space of a day. This behaviour is known as binge drinking, and often leads to misuse of alcohol – consuming more than the recommended usage. As we build high tolerance for alcohol – we drink more to get “that feeling”; subsequently leading to alcohol abuse, which inevitably creates a chronic dependency on alcohol (addiction) – the inability to cope without drinking alcohol.
Age of adulthood versus brain development
Although, the legal age for adulthood in our context is 18 years, this finding does not correspond with neuroscience age of adulthood as far as brain development. Neuroscience indicates that a human brain is still developing by age 25 to 30 years, especially, the executive functioning part of the brain, which is involved in the thinking, perception, judgement and decision-making; as well as our social cognition functioning that is concerned with our emotions and communication. Thus, it’s advisable that major life decision- making, such as consuming alcohol be deferred to a later age.
Understanding mental health implications of alcohol
From a mental health perspective, alcohol has negative impact on our society, our physiological health, our cognitive functioning more so, that of a younger person who is still in the developing phase, in addition to the cost involved in the treatment of alcohol related illnesses. When people become addicted to alcohol, their social, occupational and personal functioning is severely compromised as they are unable to complete daily tasks such as keeping good hygiene, going to work or maintain relationships. They’re only concern with drinking alcohol. It’s at this point when people often seek help from mental health professionals because in some cases alcohol use is a symptom of an underlying psychological issue that needs to be treated. However, in other instances addiction could be attributed chemical imbalances in the brain and people can be diagnosed with mental illnesses, such as alcohol use disorder or other alcohol-induced disorders such, as depression or psychosis. In most cases alcohol related disorders are chronic and can have severe and debilitating cognitive function, which requires lifelong treatment.
Of note there are special cases in which some people become dependent on alcohol but can still function in workspaces and maintain relationships – these individuals are referred to as “high-functional alcoholics”. Nevertheless, this shouldn’t be an encouragement to misuse or abuse alcohol because our genetic predisposition differs from person to person. For example, two people can consume the same amount of alcohol every day for a period of time but one person is likely to become chronically dependant on alcohol while it may not affect the other the same way.
Consequences of alcohol use/abuse/dependency:
Physical health – cancer, liver disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, gastritis, ulcers, weakened immune system, pancreatic, heart conditions, stomach problems, premature death.
Psychological health – emotional distress, social withdrawal, loneliness, irritability, unable to sleep, anger, guilt and shame, low mood, suicidal thoughts
Psychiatric health – mental illnesses, such as alcohol use disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar, antisocial personality disorder, alcohol related dementia, and neurocognitive impairment
Other alcohol-related problems – high absenteeism, loss of employment, accidents such as drowning and falling, violence including GBV and rape, child abuse, family dysfunction and displacement, divorces, increased criminal activities, increased debts and poverty, poor quality of life.
In closing, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature deaths and disability among people aged 15 to 49 years, responsible for at least 10% of deaths in this age group. This age group covers predominantly our key productive work force in Namibia. Although, it may not be all alcohol related, it’s worth noting that MVA Fund’s latest accident report for August indicates 1 800 crashes, 3187 injuries and 298 deaths.
If we ever want to achieve the vision 2030 goal in relation to health and well-being for all Namibians, we need to revisit our policies around selling and consumption of alcohol. If not, majority of our future generation will not be able to pass the baton for health and overall development of the country to the generations to come. Only healthy people can lead a healthy nation. Alcohol addiction is an illness just like any illness; if you need any assistance do reach out to available services.