Well@Brunel hosted another of its Let's Talk About... events, inviting Helen Sermon from HAGAM (Hillingdon Action Group for Addiction Management) in Uxbridge to talk about addiction.
HAGAM deals in outreach, running a daily breakfast drop-in until midday and steering people towards harmless alternatives for relaxation, like herbal tea instead of cannabis. “Someone told me he couldn't sleep without cannabis – turned out he was drinking six Red Bulls a day,” said Ms Sermon. Britain is regarded as Europe's “addiction capital”, and our caffeine intake has increased. Caffeine is one of the more common addictions. As a stimulant, caffeine overuse can affect the heart. “You shouldn't be drinking more than about five coffees a day, and none after 8pm,” Ms Sermon advised.
An addiction is defined in part by risk to health or something that stops people functioning properly.
“It's understanding the difference between a habit and an addiction,” said Ms Sermon. “I can buy a Curly Wurly, or I can drive past the shop – because I'm in control.”
The most common group of people attending HAGAM are 30-year-old men who have problems with alcohol, though cocaine and cannabis abuse are commonly used from students to IT executives. “People think it's always young people who have these problems,” she said. “It's not. The older generation are drinking at home to deal with loneliness after retirement.”
Someone who drinks 30 units of alcohol a day (a bottle of vodka) may need detox treatment, but 30-40 a week (4 or 5 bottles of wine) can be solved with counselling to examine the reasons why they are dependent. A 40-year-old could have been drinking for 20 years, so it could take some time for them to recover. Ms Sermon explained that they have “hard-wired” their brains to that behaviour, so will have to return to get help periodically throughout their lives in order to kick the habit.
People are more likely have problems if they always drink in certain situations and in certain groups, such as at every family party or funeral. “Breaking that cycle involves deciding to do something else instead, preparing and planning the night ahead,” Ms Sermon said. She said it is important for people with severe addictions to break them slowly.
“We never tell people who are drinking 30-40 units a day to just stop, because they could have a seizure. They become so tolerant of alcohol, if they stop, they crash.” There is no proven “addictive personality”, but there are personality traits that put certain people in the risk group, such as anti-social or nervous characteristics.
Some people attend HAGAM of their own accord, others are sent by family members and some have been in trouble with the law and are required to seek help, such as those with drink driving offences. “If a jumbo jet crashed every week, we would be horrified,” said Ms Sermon. “But that's what's happening – that is the impact of addiction. And it's rising.”