Drink and drugs … what lies beneath?

June 14, 2012 12:58 pm

Years of concern over the increasing prevalence of excessive drinking and alcohol abuse have led to the implementation of various methods and initiatives intended to reduce consumption and put an end to our ‘binge drinking culture’. Discussion over minimum pricing – as supported by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence in June 2010 – has been ongoing and was raised once more this month, after David Cameron pledged to tackle the nation’s continuing battle with drink during a visit to a hospital in the North East. The Alcohol Scotland Act outlawed ‘irresponsible’ drinks offers in September 2011 and stricter proof of age regulations have been implemented over the past decade, as publicised by the Challenge 21 project of the British Beer and Pub Association (BPPA) (initiated in 2005).

All such measures are valid and well-intentioned, but I can’t help feeling concerned over our tendency to avoid the deeper and murkier questions surrounding alcohol reliance and addiction. Getting to the root of, and working with, issues that lead to dependency could result in a longer term drop in the number of those who feel the need to rely on alcohol just to get by. A current mini-survey on The Telegraph’s website questions how Britain’s drink culture should be tackled, yet not one of the four options consider working with the reasons why we drink, and why we do to such excess.

Why do we drink?

So why do we binge drink? Truthfully? What psychological aspects underlie responses such as ‘to unwind after a busy day’, ‘to get away from it all’ or, more crudely, ‘to get hammered and have a good time’? Have we really become a society of people for whom everyday life is such a struggle that the only reprieve we can find comes from hitting the bottle? If so then we have an even more serious problem on our hands than originally thought. And it is not going to be solved by adding a few pence onto the price of a pint or increasing our stringency on checking for ID. If people want to drink they will drink, regardless of tokenistic government measures to attempt to withhold the booze. The only real hope we have of tackling our binge drinking culture lies in getting to the root of the problem and raising awareness of what our drives to get bladdered are actually trying to tell us.

Live for the moment

shock tactics have been used to deter people from binge drinking in the past, but it's time we got to the root of the problem

Shock tactics are often used to educate young people about the risks of drinking, smoking, underage sex and drug taking. Pictures of blackened lungs, horror stories of abandoned mothers and chemical breakdowns of illegal drugs are all employed in order to scare our young out of self-destructive behaviour, but how much talk of consequences is really going to be absorbed? Young people tend to live for the moment. ‘The moment’ doesn’t involve hypothetical cirrhosis and liver problems that may kick in as one enters middle age but, for far too many youths, does include unhappiness, uncertainty, a lack of confidence and a weak sense of self, all of which can be covered up and forgotten about quite conveniently when drowned in disinhibiting alcopops, lager or stronger stuff. Wouldn’t we be better off looking at the causes of self-destruction, rather than the purely the consequences? Perhaps an exploration around school yard bullying, low self-esteem or a lack of self-awareness, all of which can lead to depression, anxiety and self-medication as a form of pain relief, would help young people to understand their cravings and reliance. In turn this could encourage them to build up a stronger personality that is more resilient to the seductive nature of drugs. Helping a young person to deal with life struggles, and passing on coping methods and tools that enhance their internal resources, whilst enabling them to take better care of their own mental as well as physical health, would be invaluable for preparing our young for lives as healthy and balanced adult individuals. The young are known for their impressionability; it’s up to us to try and make those impressions positive.

A depressing fact

It is often brought to our attention that there is a link between alcohol and depression; alcohol is a depressant and drinking can lead to mental health problems in young and old alike. Many people who are depressed enough to commit, or attempt to commit, suicide do indeed have a problem with alcohol (Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) 2008). But what appears much less commonly considered within the mainstream is the tendencies of depression to bring on alcoholism, as sufferers attempt to find ways of coping and self-medicating through booze in order to avoid facing up to the actual problem. Sigman (2011) is not alone in acknowledging that the relationship between alcohol and depression is reciprocal, in his contemporary treatise ‘Alcohol Nation: How to protect our children from today’s drinking culture’, but this point gets lost somewhere between the findings of clinical evidence and the dissemination of information to the public. To admit that our issues around booze addiction lie within ourselves and our malfunctioning, and is something that we need to take personal responsibility for rather that laying at the feet of government, Diageo, pricing wars or fake ID, is painful. In order to accept this we need to reclaim that part of ourselves that is broken and dependent and work to repair it. The 2009 study ‘Teenage drinking, alcohol availability and pricing’, talks of our nation’s ‘adult environment [as] dominated by this drug [alcohol]’. Addressing the roots of this domination is the only way that we are truly going to be able to move past a societal dependence on alcoholic escapism and embed new values and lifestyles that don’t require us to bury our head in the sand – or the vodka bottle – every Friday night.

Putting a minimum price on alcohol will not combat the problem of alcoholism; that issue lies much deeper in the individual

Money matters

A lot of health issues of today boil down to the conflict between prevention and cure. We have all heard of the saying ‘the best type of cure is prevention’ and we know it makes sense, so why are we not spending more time, money and effort in implementing preventative tactics to create a healthier society that could rely less on reparation? There is evidence to suggest that increasing the price of alcohol will lower consumption. Professor Anne Ludbrook (University of Aberdeen and instrumental in developing the NICE guidance on alcohol-use disorders) was quoted as saying, in the article ’NICE calls for minimum pricing alcohol’ (June 2010), that “Increasing the price is likely to be the most cost-effective way of reducing drinking” and Sigman (2011) talks of how this will reduce deaths caused by alcohol in the young and low-income brackets. But this measure will still fall short of a significant proportion of the population who are struggling, albeit often covertly, with an addiction to and dependence on alcohol. Someone holding a dinner party may buy in less alcohol if it is retailing at a higher price than they would have done previously, but if alcohol is the only thing that can make them feel able to cope with life than an increase in cost would not stop them from getting my hands on their weekly, or daily, supply. The issues run far too deep. Education, counselling and mentoring are just a few areas that we need to focus on in order to combat the drinking endemic. This ideal is an expensive enterprise, but I imagine few would argue with the long term benefits of creating a healthier and happier society that can develop and support itself without the aid of substances and psychological avoidance.

Crisis management

Perhaps, as a society, we’re in the crisis management stages of the drinking problem and just have to act quickly and sharply in order to halt the spread of the alcoholism as soon as possible. But as we look forward we need to be thinking about long term solutions to the problem of alcohol addiction, and consider how we can prevent so many people from feeling the need to turn to alcohol to help them through life in the first place. At the moment the house in on fire – we don’t care how it started, we just need to put it out. But once the flames have died down we must start to investigate the underlying causes and sparks which led to the blaze so that we don’t allow it to happen all over again.

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