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alcohol health alliance uk

Alcohol Awareness Week 2020: Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol - not the answer

Alcohol - not the answer

Posted 16/11/20

A new survey for Alcohol Awareness Week (16-22 November) shows that four in 10 (41%) drinkers reported anxiety, stress or worry as a reason for drinking at least once in the past six months.

That would mean nearly 740,000 people in the North East who may have turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism. It comes as North East Consultant Psychiatrist Prof Eilish Gilvarry and former Sunderland and Ireland footballer Kieron Brady have warned about the risks and dangers of turning to alcohol to cope.

Balance’s new campaign: “Alcohol – Not the Answer” launched this month to highlight how alcohol can weaken our immune system against infectious diseases like Covid, contribute to low mood and anxiety, and cause cancer, stroke and heart disease. People can visit for tips and free tools to help cut down.

Colin Shevills, Director of Balance, said: “These new findings for Alcohol Awareness Week are worrying. They are the latest to show that the last eight or nine months have pushed more people down the road towards alcohol becoming a real danger to their physical and mental health.

“Sometimes when it comes to alcohol there is denial, and sometimes there is stigma. For Alcohol Awareness Week it is time to recognise we as a nation have a problem and encourage people to get the support they need.”

Prof Eilish Gilvarry, consultant psychiatrist in Addictions at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Covid has affected us all – it has been a fearful and stressful time with job and family worries, loss of routines and because we don’t know what is going to happen it can be frightening. Very often these are the feelings we would use alcohol for. But long term drinking is very much associated with worsening depression.

“It is certainly problematic for those with anxiety – people might think it reduces anxiety and it might if you just leave it at only one or two drinks, but that is often not the case. People often think it will help with sleep, but as your body is processing alcohol, you can wake up in the night with much greater anxiety and even panic attacks. People then think they are suffering from stress when it can be the alcohol causing it, so they drink more again causing a vicious cycle and potentially a problem with alcohol. And when it comes to people in treatment services for alcohol, probably about 70-80% have problems with anxiety and depression as well as a problem with alcohol.

“Alcohol is a drug and we need to have a very healthy respect for it. There are some tips to avoid drinking too much – get outside, exercise, have a structure to your day and do something you love that doesn’t involve drinking. And if you do drink, don’t drink during the day and wait until at least six or seven o’clock in the evening.”

She added: “When it comes to taking time off from alcohol, I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who hasn’t told me how good they feel when they’ve taken a month off alcohol. They’ve lost weight, are sleeping better and are less anxious, even if they’ve found the first few days difficult.”

Former Sunderland footballer Kieron Brady now supports people with alcohol problems, after suffering with alcoholism himself. Kieron’s drinking escalated until his mid-30s when he reached crisis point and he went into recovery. He has been sober since June 2009, and has since married and started a family, which he never thought possible.

Kieron said: “One of the things I say to people who think they might be drinking too much, or on that path, is to assess their drinking as honestly as they can. If it is costing you more than money and becoming problematic in your personal and professional life, now is the time to look at how much you’re drinking, the reasons why and make a change.

“I found out the hard way. Recovery has taught me that life events do lead people to turn to alcohol, mainly for solace, but I was already drinking far too much.

“As well as affecting the body, alcohol affects the mind and it can create many different mental health conditions for some. I was diagnosed with depression and depersonalisation disorder, both of which were alcohol-induced. Thankfully, my mental health improved because of my recovery and I haven’t suffered from depression since becoming sober.

“It’s important that people recognise the warning signs if their drinking is creeping up. Consider how much you think about alcohol when you’re not drinking. Have you ever hidden your drinking, started drinking early, or a loved one has told you that you might be drinking too much? Ask yourself these questions and answer them honestly. I often say to people – has anyone ever told you that you can be ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ because of your relationship with alcohol?

“My drinking was at the extreme end and it was hellish. I wouldn’t want anyone to experience what I went through and whatever your relationship with alcohol, you can turn it round with the right support. If you’re drinking too much, I can honestly say that cutting down and even trying some time off the booze will bring you all of the things alcohol promised you but failed to deliver.”

The national survey from Alcohol Change for Alcohol Awareness Week found that anxiety, stress or worry were the most common reasons given for drinking, with four in 10 (41%) drinkers reporting this as a reason for drinking at least once in the past six months.

But while struggles with mental health led many to drink alcohol, drinking actually worsened mental health for four in 10 drinkers (44%). This group have all experienced a negative impact on their mental wellbeing as a result of drinking at least once in the past six months, such as:

• Feeling anxious, stressed or worried (30%)
• Trouble getting to sleep (29%)
• Waking during the night or not sleeping well (35%)
• Memory loss (22%)
• Feeling sad or low (29%)
• Feeling irritable or angry (28%)

This close, two-way link between alcohol and mental health is the reason that this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week – run by Alcohol Change UK – is focusing on alcohol and mental health. Over 4,000 community groups across the UK will be taking part in this year’s Alcohol Awareness Week to raise awareness of the link between alcohol and mental health, to speak out about the stigma surrounding both issues, and to encourage anyone who is struggling to seek the support they deserve.

The impact is greatest on BAME and young people, and parents of under-18s.

Some of the inequalities seen over the course of the pandemic are reflected in people’s drinking habits, for example those of young people and people from BAME backgrounds.

Six in 10 (63%) people aged 18 to 34 reported drinking for a reason related to their mental health, compared to nearly five in 10 (45%) people aged 35 to 54, and three in 10 (31%) people aged 55+.

Seven in 10 BAME respondents (68%) said they had drunk for a mental health reason over the past six months, compared to just four in 10 (41%) people from white British backgrounds.

The survey also revealed that parents of children under the age of 18 were more likely than others to have drunk alcohol for a mental health-related reason, with almost six in 10 (59%) people with children under 18 in their household reporting doing so over the past six months, compared to three in ten (32%) of those with children over the age of 18 and four in ten (42%) of those with no children.

Even greater stigma around alcohol problems than mental health problems

While there has been a concerted effort to challenge the stigma around mental health problems in recent years, there’s been little change in the stigma facing those with alcohol problems and their loved ones, despite the two issues being closely linked. Respondents felt more confident that they would be supported if they were to have a mental health problem than an alcohol problem, whether by family members (69% versus 62%), friends (69% versus 58%) or their employer (43% versus 25%).

Even more striking is that those surveyed were not wholly confident of support from their doctor, with just 57% expecting to be supported by their GP for their alcohol problems, compared to 69% for a mental health problem.

In order to gauge whether people have more understanding and empathy towards mental health problems than alcohol problems, the survey asked respondents to agree or disagree with a series of statements. When asked whether ‘People with this problem deserve our sympathy’, almost seven in 10 (65%) people surveyed agreed with this statement in relation to mental health problems, but only four in 10 (41%) in relation to alcohol problems.

However, when people have known someone with an alcohol problem they showed a much higher level of tolerance and sympathy. Six in 10 people (61%) reported knowing or having known a friend, family member, colleague or other close acquaintance with an alcohol problem. This group were more sympathetic across the board.

Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK, said negative attitudes towards those who are struggling with their drinking can be a huge barrier to seeking help. Calling for more open conversations around alcohol and mental health, he said: “There remains far too much stigma around mental health, but this new research suggests that the stigma surrounding alcohol problems runs far deeper. Stigma isn’t just painful for those suffering from alcohol problems and their loved ones – it can also prevent people from getting the help they so desperately need and deserve.

“COVID-19 has negatively affected our nation’s mental health, and has led millions of us to drink more heavily. Challenging the stigma and shame that many of us feel when we realise our drinking has got out of control is more important now than ever.

“This isn’t a niche issue. This research shows that six in ten of us have known someone with a drinking problem. One in ten hospital inpatients is dependent on alcohol. Any of us can find ourselves drinking too much. So it’s time we started talking about it: talk to your friends and family about your own and their drinking in a non-judgmental way, and ask for support if you need it. It’s the bravest and best thing you can do.”

For information on where to get support if you or someone you know is drinking heavily, please visit the Alcohol Change UK website. This includes information about where to get support during lockdown.

For advice and information about managing your drinking during the pandemic, visit the charity’s COVID-19 and alcohol information and advice hub.