How drinking affects our mental health

As festive drinks party invitations start arriving people won’t need reminding that our culture is as soaked in alcohol as a Christmas pudding.

For many people, moderate drinking is an enjoyable part of their lives and helps them relax, enjoy themselves and savour a fine wine, craft beer or subtle spirit.

I've made myself thirsty just writing that line, but I won’t be reaching for the bottle because I am one of a large minority of people who cannot drink in the moderate, pleasurable way described above.

When I drank I could end up blacking out and waking up the next day with overwhelming feelings of dread that would often make me want to block it out with more drinking. This developed into a cycle of dependency that damaged my health, relationships and career.

"When I drank I could end up blacking out and waking up the next day with overwhelming feelings of dread that would often make me want to block it out with more drinking."

With the help of supportive family, friends and services, including cognitive behavioural therapy, I managed to break the cycle and stopped drinking altogether nine years ago.

Subsequently, life has never been so good for me but it’s estimated that there are 600,000 dependent drinkers in England alone, many of them and their families suffering as me and my family did.

Problem drinking is closely associated with violence, trauma and poverty which are some of the most significant factors in harming mental health. Not only can alcohol act as an indirect pre-determinant of mental ill health, by causing violence that traumatises, for example, but the substance itself changes a person's brain chemistry and can directly cause depression and anxiety.

"Problem drinking is closely associated with violence, trauma and poverty which are some of the most significant factors in harming mental health."

My advice to individuals concerned about their own drinking is to seek help and support. Trying to go 'cold turkey' without medical advice can be dangerous, so talk to your doctor.

Despite huge cuts to public health budgets that provide addiction services there are still many good services available via your GP as well as organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous which has groups nearly everywhere. Recovery is entirely possible and life can get much better, believe me I’ve been there and have never regretted quitting.

But alcohol is not just a problem for individuals - it is an issue for society both in creating the conditions that make problem drinking more likely, and in suffering the consequences of it. Alcohol-related crime and illness put huge pressure on our public services from the police and accident and emergency departments to children’s social care and mental health clinics.

We need to reinvest in the public health services that treat addiction and which have been cut by 12% in recent years. It is great that Health Secretary Matt Hancock is talking about 'prevention' but this needs to be backed up by investment and legislation to support recovery and protect vulnerable people from harm.

"We need to reinvest in the public health services that treat addiction and which have been cut by 12% in recent years."

Experts sometimes talk about how we live in an 'obesogenic environment', which is a fancy term for being surrounded by junk food adverts and unhealthy food options but we also live in an 'alcoholic environment'.

There’s little restriction, in England at least, on advertising or selling booze 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In my borough there are more than 50 off licenses open 24-hours a day. I cannot think of what possible good can come from people being able to buy gallons of vodka at 5am on nearly every high street. The old Sunday trading laws used to be the only thing that would stop my all-weekend bingeing.

Scotland has tougher licensing laws and, earlier this year, brought in minimum alcohol unit pricing which means super-strong lagers, ciders and spirits bought in off licenses are much more expensive.

These are positive steps but I believe our leaders need to go much further with minimum unit pricing throughout the UK, in addition to a ban on alcohol adverts and stricter licensing and labelling laws.

Earlier this year we at the Mental Health Foundation contributed to work with our colleagues at the Centre for Mental Health and Institute for Alcohol Studies that created this discussion paper. We will also be publishing a guide to help you support your friends who you think may have a problem.

Now action needs to be taken to stop more problem drinkers being created and supporting those who need support to live a better life.

Charities that can support you

  • Addaction - Addaction is one of the UK's leading mental health, drug and alcohol charities.
  • Adfam - Adfam is the only national UK charity working to improve support for those affected by someone else's substance use. 
  • Alcoholics Anonymous - AA is concerned solely with the personal recovery and continued sobriety of individual alcoholics.

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