Why it’s time to take drinking seriously as a mental health issue
Sometimes I worry about my drinking, but if I have a problem, then so do most people I know. Alcohol is embedded in our culture; we have completely normalised problem drinking, to the point that sobriety is a suspicious idea. In a study by the World Health Organisation, 28% of drinkers admitted to ‘heavy episodic drinking’, well above the global average of 16%.
We have a drinking problem. It is recommended that we should drink no more than 14 units per week – but who actually thinks about how much that is? As a friend of mine told me when I was writing this, “a lot of my friends drink way more than recommended allowance of a week on a single night out, and I do the same. if no one is being sick or getting hurt then it feels like there’s no problem with it.”
At 21, I gave up drinking completely for two years. I had entered a vicious cycle – I was miserable and anxious and the only way I knew how to calm myself down was with a drink. But when I started, I couldn’t stop. I was blacking out regularly – both with other people and at home on my own, and by the time I stopped my idea of one drink was a glass filled with neat gin. The guilt and shame of the hangover left me needing another drink, so it would begin again. I had been vaguely aware that my behaviour was out of control; the situations I was getting myself into were getting darker and scarier, and I was no longer enjoying myself.
Heavy drinking is linked to depression, anxiety and even psychosis. Despite the fact that my mood was spiralling out of control and even a psychiatrist was telling me I needed to stop, I denied that there was anything wrong because at my age, I couldn’t possibly have a problem with alcohol. There is a real lack of understanding that anyone can suffer with drinking – you can be young, old, rich or poor and you don’t have to be sitting on a park bench or even drinking every day – as Drinkaware says; “There are varying degrees of alcohol dependence and they don’t always involve excessive levels of drinking.” My decision to stop was generally met with support, but also with some suspicion and confusion- people would constantly ask whether I was sure and suggest I learn my limits instead.
At times, I felt like a pariah. “You sense that people are judging you… the path of least resistance, weirdly, is to carry on drinking,” another sober friend agreed. When violence, vomit, losing your stuff, passing out, having sex with someone you don’t remember become normalised, ironically being sober is considered the stranger. “In certain situations I’ve genuinely felt slightly outcasted for not drinking… I have to go out of my way to prove how normal I am,” the same friend, sober for four years, added.
The NHS recommendation of 14 units per week, which is about 6 pints or 7 glasses of wine. But who can keep track? Drinking is everywhere. We drink to celebrate, we drink when we are sad, we drink to relax – we drink at any excuse.
Interestingly, it’s often harder for girls. Another study by the OECD found British women are more likely to get drunk than in any other Western Country, with chief executive of 2020 Health Julia Manning, telling the Telegraph; “It used to be that women and girls in this country would be ashamed of being drunk, but now this ladette culture has taken hold. We have ended up with a situation where young girls are really concerned about seeming cool – yet they don’t care about being seen vomiting in public.” I certainly agree that there is a bravado to drinking to excess – a friend recently told me, “I respect people who can have a couple and go home, but I find it difficult to do. I want to be the last one there.”
It’s clear that we need to do something about this endemic problem – but what? Awareness seems like a start, given that people are blind to the danger drinking brings. In a 2011 study, 7.5 million people admitted they were unaware of the damage heavy drinking could be doing to their health. We are all vaguely aware that drinking can damage our livers- but what about our minds? According to Drinkaware, “if you drink heavily and regularly you’re likely to develop some symptoms of depression.”But in an age where most people are drinking to excess and wearing their war stories like badges of honour, it can become difficult to tell who is just like everyone else, and who is really struggling.
It is important to realise the link between anxiety, depression and alcohol – whether you drink because you are anxious, or you are anxious because you drink. We need more awareness that alcohol affects our mental health as well as our physical health: while we may be enjoying ourselves, alcohol is also a depressant, and in our binge drinking culture, admitting that alcohol is affecting your mood is brave, not weak.