Helplines could be key to increasing treatment for alcohol concerns

26 Jun 2024

Helplines are a common first point of contact for people seeking help and could play a key role in reducing the impact of alcohol harms.

Helplines can be a lifeline

A team of researchers led by Senior Research Fellow Dr Annette Peart has identified an increase in the number of alcohol-related calls to the DirectLine drug and alcohol service during the first 6 months of the pandemic.

The number of first-time callers with concerns about alcohol also went up.

“While access to other forms of healthcare was limited due to pandemic restriction, this increase in access to DirectLine demonstrates the unique role that helplines can play in helping anyone access care as soon as they need it,” Dr Peart explains.

“By improving the promotion of helplines and expanding their availability, more people could have access to vital healthcare during public health crises,” she says.

Even outside a public health crisis, the researchers believe that helplines could be the key to reducing the extent and impact of alcohol harms by ensuring everyone has easier access to care.

“The fact that helplines are available from anywhere and at any time, combined with being completely anonymous, means that people may be more likely to use them as soon as they need help than other support options,” says Dr Peart.

Immediate and easy access to support for all

As a common first point of contact when people seek support for alcohol harms, telephone helplines have the potential to overcome the barriers that can prevent people from accessing care.

For example, a 2022 study led by Senior Research Fellow Dr Jasmin Grigg found that while women make up a third of all clients accessing alcohol treatment, nearly half of the participants in the study accessing helpline support were female.

“Our findings show that helplines and telehealth more broadly are filling a gap in the services that are available to women, who can experience a variety of barriers to accessing care,” explains Dr Grigg.

Childcare responsibilities, social stigma or co-existing health challenges can all make it difficult for women to access in-person support and instead prefer the anonymity and after-hours access provided by services such as DirectLine.

This study also found that people living in non-metropolitan areas were more likely to access helpline support than people living in metropolitan areas.

“We know that people living in regional and remote areas can be disproportionately affected by alcohol harms, but due to a variety of reasons receive lower rates of treatment episodes,” Dr Grigg says.

“Helplines can play a key role in overcoming the additional treatment barriers that people in regional and remote communities face such as long distances to reach face-to-face services and the difficulty in remaining anonymous in small communities,” she explains.

A chance to increase uptake of treatment for alcohol concerns

Despite the increase in callers with alcohol-related concerns identified by Dr Peart and the team of researchers, their study also identified a reduction in the proportion of calls that led to counselling and support.

“This suggests that the benefits of the helpline were not fully taken up when the need was increasing during the pandemic,” Dr Peart explains.

One of the reasons people avoid or delay asking for help is low awareness that their alcohol use is a problem. For example, they often don’t believe their drinking problem is serious enough, or they believe they “should be strong enough to handle it alone”.

“It is important to develop targeted health promotion strategies that ensure people are aware of the harms that are caused by even low levels of alcohol consumption, as well as the kinds of help that is available and when to seek it when people need help,” Dr Grigg says.

Dr Peart agrees. “If we can improve awareness that help is available just by picking up the phone, we believe that telephone helplines could play a key role in overcoming barriers that prevent people from seeking help.”

“Simply by increasing awareness of how helplines can help people who are seeking help for alcohol concerns, we could ensure that all who need it can access much-needed care as soon as they seek help.”

Read the papers:

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on calls to an alcohol and drug helpline in Victoria, Australia, for alcohol, methamphetamine and cannabis use concerns

A Latent Class Analysis of Perceived Barriers to Help-seeking Among People with Alcohol Use Problems Presenting for Telephone-delivered Treatment

Access helplines and other support:

DirectLine provides a 24-hour telephone counselling, information and referral service for anyone in Victoria wishing to discuss an alcohol or drug-related issue

Counselling Online is a free, confidential service that provides 24/7 support to people affected by alcohol or drug use across Australia

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