“What constitutes a ‘problem’?” Producing ‘alcohol problems’ through online counselling encounters Academic Article uri icon


  • Typically, health policy, practice and research views alcohol and other drug (AOD) 'problems' as objective things waiting to be detected, diagnosed and treated. However, this approach to policy development and treatment downplays the role of clinical practices, tools, discourses, and systems in shaping how AOD use is constituted as a 'problem'. For instance, people might present to AOD treatment with multiple psycho-social concerns, but usually only a singular AOD-associated 'problem' is considered serviceable. As the assumed nature of 'the serviceable problem' influences what treatment responses people receive, and how they may come to be enacted as 'addicted' or 'normal' subjects, it is important to subject clinical practices of problem formulation to critical analysis. Given that the reach of AOD treatment has expanded via the online medium, in this article we examine how 'problems' are produced in online alcohol counselling encounters involving people aged 55 and over. Drawing on poststructural approaches to problematisation, we not only trace how and what 'problems' are produced, but also what effects these give rise to. We discuss three approaches to problem formulation: (1) Addiction discourses at work; (2) Moving between concerns and alcohol 'problems'; (3) Making 'problems' complex and multiple. On the basis of this analysis, we argue that online AOD counselling does not just respond to pre-existing 'AOD problems'. Rather, through the social and clinical practices of formulation at work in clinical encounters, online counselling also produces them. Thus, given a different set of circumstances, practices and relations, 'problems' might be defined or emerge differently-perhaps not as 'problems' at all or perhaps as different kinds of concerns. We conclude by highlighting the need for a critical reflexivity in AOD treatment and policy in order to open up possibilities for different ways of engaging with, and responding to, people's needs in their complexity.

publication date

  • 2017