The modern equivalent, of the Bacchanalian orgy, at least in the minds of many parents, officially kicked off last Saturday with about 22,000 high school graduates flooding the streets of Surfers Paradise for a fortnight-long beach party.
After 30 years of talking to students who have returned from the annual rite of passage with some horror stories of drink spiking, creepy toolies, physical and sexual assaults and reluctant initiation into some serious drug use – is that in the past few years they report fewer fights, and it would appear the number of students getting completely intoxicated and passing out seems to have dropped. Sexual assaults have dropped and students appear to be looking out for each other a lot more.
In fact, my clients tell me that the last three schoolies have probably been the healthiest we’ve had in 2 decades. There’s been a real shift in culture where there are a lot more people not drinking as much, and a lot more people not drinking at all.
Interestingly, one factor looms large behind this turn around – namely the perennial parental nemesis of social media. My guess is that Snapchat and Instagram – and the concurrent obsession to ‘look good’ – is overriding the desire to let it all hang out. Appearances matter – yay for social media!
However, the biggest danger remains the ready availability of illicit drugs. Worryingly, Queensland Police seized more than $100,000 in drugs heading for the Gold Coast ahead of this year’s schoolies celebrations. Police Minister Mark Ryan launched a special operation in the lead up to the end-of-school festivities. A five-month operation resulted in the seizure of packaged ice, cocaine, MDMA, LSD, cannabis and other drugs. Scarily, firearms were also seized.
The other danger that is in many ways even more insidious, is Meningococcal disease. Meningococcal is an acute bacterial infection that can cause death within hours if not recognised and treated. Although the majority of victims will recover fully, 10% of those infected will die, and around 20% will have permanent disabilities, ranging from learning difficulties, sight and hearing problems, to liver and kidney failure, loss of fingers, toes and limbs and scarring caused by skin grafts.
Teenagers and young adults from 15 to 24 years are most at risk primarily because of the socially interactive lifestyle they lead. Their lifestyle is more likely to involve intimate activities such as kissing. Last week medical authorities were urging schoolies to get a meningococcal B vaccine over fears post-graduation celebrations increase the risk of contracting the potentially deadly disease.
So should Australian parents cave in to their teenagers pleas to attend this event, be it at Byron Bay or the Gold Coast? Given the dangers – the answer is (typical psychologist) – it depends.
The greatest predictor of future behaviour in young people, is their past track record. So, if you have a young person who has finished Year 12, they have a good set of sensible, pro-social peers, a strong connection with adult carers who have successfully transmitted reasonably strong attitudes, values and beliefs about personal safety, dignity and respect and they are not massively socially immature risk-takers then in all probability they should go and with the army of helpers from Red Frogs Australia, a not-for-profit organisation that helps young people cope with high-pressure social environments like Schoolies, they will probably be okay.
However if not, then you may well have to think of some great alternatives. Funding an organised trip with trusted adults to Europe, working in a Thai orphanage or getting a job at a supermarket can all be life changing, growth-enhancing alternatives to the modern day Byron Bacchanalia.