On Boxing Day in 2014, a drunken Shanna Whan was lying unconscious at the bottom of the stairs, bruised and bleeding at her home in north-western New South Wales.

Key points:

  • Shanna Whan almost lost her life to alcohol abuse on Boxing Day in 2014
  • She formed a local peer support group after receiving help from a recovered alcoholic
  • She’s dedicated around 20,000 hours to lobby for change to alcohol culture in rural areas

The incident, which almost cost Ms Whan her life, was the start of the NSW Local Hero 2022’s journey to become a pioneer in the fight against alcohol abuse in rural Australia. 

“Lying in the emergency department, I knew it was time to change,” she said.

For years Ms Whan resorted to alcohol as an escape from her horrors.

Drinking was a distraction from her multiple sexual assaults and a courage booster for social engagements.

Shanna Whan was unequipped to cope with drinking problems before 2014 

Shanna Whan was unequipped to cope with drinking problems before 2014.(Supplied: Shanna Whan)

“I was a very young and naive country girl and I felt isolated because of the traumas that happened to me,” she said.

“[Alcoholism] destroyed my self-confidence and my sense of self-worth was deteriorating.

Ms Whan’s amiable facade kept her off the rural health system’s radar and she went undiagnosed and untreated for her alcohol use disorder problem.

“My idea of alcoholics didn’t expand beyond a homeless person in the gutter drinking from a paper bag, because no-one really educated us on how alcohol addiction also affected high-functioning individuals as well,” she said.

A recovered alcoholic

In a bid to seek guidance on her drinking problems, Ms Whan connected with recovered alcoholic Aly through the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) helpline.

“It was an absolute miracle to meet her, because our encounter brought me from a place of despair and hopelessness to a place of hope and positive change,” Ms Whan said.

The conversation led to six years – to date – of sobriety.

“I don’t think that it can ever be safe for me to pick up a drink again, but I don’t feel the need anymore,” Ms Whan said.

“I am no longer affected by what others do around me during social events and can safely socialise with a soda while others enjoy their alcoholic beverages.”

Sober in the country

Grateful for the life-changing experience, Ms Whan began a peer support group in her local town to ensure others could benefit from the same support she received.

“There are plenty of ‘Shannas’ out there who don’t make it out alive, and don’t get a second chance to heal from their trauma or find help in time,” she said.

“These are the people we fight for, because we see them, hear them, and love them —they’re our family.”

Shanna Whan created peer support group in 2015

Shanna Whan established a local peer support group for people struggling with alcohol abuse.(Supplied: Shanna Whan)

Ms Whan noticed from her early peer support sessions that there was a lack of access to help for people experiencing drinking adversities.

“It is very expensive for many in rural areas to travel hundreds of kilometres to find rehab or psychological support in big towns and cities,” she said.

“Country folks are hard-working people who can hardly find the time to leave their farms and homes.

“There’s a fire that burns in my soul to see addictions services and support addressed equitably, sustainably, and fairly ‘out west’ to where our lives are lived and our battles are fought in permanent iso.”


The local project evolved into a grassroots charity called Sober in the Country (SITC), which aims to change the culture of alcohol in rural areas.

“We glorify drinking alcohol in the bush by judging a man by his ability to consume a certain quantity of booze, yet alienate and stigmatise alcoholics,” Ms Whan said.

So far Ms Whan has dedicated about 20,000 hours to the charity, travelling around the country to share her own experience and drive greater dialogue about alcohol consumption in regional areas.

The charity is now running a campaign to convey the message that it is “OK to say no” to booze.

“We are not anti-alcohol or prohibitionist, we are just simply spreading the message that it is OK to say no to alcohol,” Ms Whan said.

Shanna Whan and Sober in the Country

Shanna Whan now travels across Australia to advocate for change in alcohol culture.(Supplied: Shanna Whan)

From a ‘broken life’ to Local Hero

Ms Whan could not hide her emotions when she was named NSW Local Hero of the Year.

“I feel so excited that rural and remote Australians are being recognised, because for me this is about them,” she said.

“To be building something so significant out of something so horrendous and desperately dark to bring hope for others, I just can’t imagine a greater honour and purpose.

“What was a broken life in ended up a life meant to be lived exactly as it did.”

A near-fatal drunken fall put Shanna on the path to becoming the NSW Local Hero of the Year
Source 1


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