It could be any club in any Australian city, loud, pulsing rhythms, deep pounding bass, flashing lights, a packed dance floor. Hundreds of young people gathered to party – to forget about study and work and girlfriend/boyfriend/best-friend problems. Dancing, drinking and maybe drugs. Probably the last place that you would expect to find volunteers from Australian Red Cross.
For the past five years however, Australian Red Cross volunteers have been pounding the beat of clubs, pubs and music festivals as part of its Save-a-Mate (SAM) programme. SAM promotes health and well-being in young people by educating them about the harms that they might face in everyday life, particularly in relation to drug and alcohol use.
Clementine Penninger, 23, has been an active member of the SAM first aid program for about two years now. Every couple of weeks, ‘Clemmie’, as she is known to her friends, and a team of highly trained volunteers head out to youth events – dance parties, music festivals, anywhere where that they are needed.
Over the years, Clemmie and other SAM volunteers have had to respond to numerous circumstances that have occurred as a result of alcohol or other drug use. “But we don’t judge or tell people off,” she explains. “We help them when they are unwell, and give them advice when they’re after it.”
This non-judgemental approach – rooted firmly in the Red Cross principle of neutrality – is a central tenet of the SAM program. Without any bias, volunteers share information with revellers about the effects and dangers of experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
“It’s easier for young people to hear about drinking and acting responsibly from their peers,” Clemmie says. “It means more when advice about these kinds of risky behaviours – about drinking and experimenting with drugs - comes from someone who is part of their own culture.”
Shaun Hazeldine, who, as Manager of Youth and Education Services for Australian Red Cross is heavily involved in SAM, agrees. “Research suggests that people are more likely to hear and personalize messages if they believe the person telling them is similar to them and faces the same pressures and concerns.
“That is why we recruit young people who are not out of place at these events to talk to people their own age about risks.”
Through the SAM program, Australian Red Cross also runs training sessions that teach others to deal with drug and other alcohol crises, about how to prevent, recognise and respond to any such emergencies. “There are a plethora of drug and alcohol courses in the community,” explains Shaun, “but none focus on the emergencies that can result from alcohol and other drug use. Likewise traditional first aid courses do not deal substantively with drug and alcohol issues.”
So far, more than 5,000 people have completed SAM first aid courses across Australia. And almost everyone has indicated that they would recommend it to others. And according to Clemmie, the SAM program is also generally very well received at youth events, with people often seeking them out to congratulate them on what they are doing. “We’ll walk into a club and people will come up to us and say ‘Oh, SAM, how are you going? I saw you at such-and-such event – you helped me out!’”
Every year, more and more youth events are looking to include SAM teams in their risk management planning. Australian Red Cross is also looking to work with state education departments to see that every final year high school student undertakes the training course before leaving school. Efforts are also underway in some states to ensure that staff in pubs, clubs and other venues also undertake the training.
Through SAM, Australian Red Cross is striving to reach as many people as possible who come in regular contact with the issues that may result from alcohol and other drug use, including, for example, sex workers, homeless youth and prisoners. “SAM will continue to develop for those people facing drug and alcohol issues,” says Shaun. “We will listen to young people to make sure we are providing the kind of support they need, not the kind we think they need.”