To good health!

As many of you have no doubt seen, David Cameron has recently pledged to tackle the problematic rise of drunkenness and alcohol abuse that is costing UK society up to £22bn every year, with a new alcohol strategy for England.

While it is good news that this issue is on the agenda, it’s absolutely crucial that the strategy takes into account the devastating effects that alcohol can have on mental health.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with responsible drinking – it’s a pleasure for many and brings obvious social benefits – some evidence even suggests it brings health benefits as well. But the problem comes with, simply, drinking too much, and becoming addicted to alcohol.

The link between alcohol abuse and poor mental health is an enduring one. We know, for instance, that people with severe and long term mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are at least three times as likely to be alcohol dependant as the general population. We also know that many people with anxiety and depression are heavy drinkers.

The reason for this is self-evident - alcohol is used as a coping mechanism, it’s seen as a readily available elixir that users hope will banish anxiety, depression and feelings of hopelessness by rearranging various chemicals in the brain. But “drinking to forget” does not bring happiness, it is merely a short-term escape from people’s problems - what philosopher Bertrand Russell termed ‘temporary suicide’. Alcohol does not heal, it simply dulls brain function, acting as a depressant to a brain that may already be in a state of depression.

So, we know that mental illness can lead to alcohol abuse, and that alcohol abuse can both trigger mental health problems and perpetuate existing mental illnesses. It’s a vicious circle.

A particularly worrying connection between alcohol and mental illness is seen in its relationship to suicide. Research has shown that as many as 65% of suicides have been linked to excessive drinking, and 70% of men who kill themselves have drunk alcohol before doing so.

There are practical ways to ease this problem. The Scottish Government has been trying to introduce minimum alcohol prices for many years and will finally do so in this parliament. In addition to this, it has already passed an Act that bans quantity discounts for off-sales that encourage customers to purchase more than they might normally have done; restricts the displaying of material promoting alcohol; and involves health boards in licensing issues. These measures, it is hoped, will help to curb the huge rise in crime, anti-social behaviour, and hospital costs that are directly related to alcohol abuse in Scotland.

We’d want the alcohol strategy for England to follow along these lines, but I we’d also like to see increased education about the association between alcohol use and mental health in schools and youth clubs, and for health staff to advise patients about the dangers of excessive drinking to both their mental and physical health.

Ultimately, the health risks of misusing alcohol need to be as firmly lodged in the public consciousness as those of smoking.