Alcohol is a depressant that has been shown to exacerbate feelings of depression and anxiety.
Research shows that many people drink alcohol in a belief that it may help them overcome difficult emotions or situations. However, using alcohol to cope with trauma or feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety may increase a person’s risk of developing alcohol dependence, as well as other long-term health and social harms associated with heavy alcohol consumption.
According to the US organisation SAMSHA, trauma is an almost universal experience of people with mental and substance use disorders.
Early traumatic experience may increase risk of substance use disorders because of attempts to self-medicate or to dampen mood symptoms associated with a dysregulated biological stress response.
A growing body of evidence now makes clear that it is critical to address trauma as part of substance abuse treatment and that “misidentified or misdiagnosed trauma-related symptoms interfere with help seeking, hamper engagement in treatment, leads to early dropout, and make relapse more likely.”
When alcohol use problems co-occur with serious mental health issues this is known as “dual diagnosis”.
For people who have a mental health problem and an alcohol problem, accessing treatment can be difficult as many services will either treat one or the other but not both problems together.
In 2006, A Vision for Change, the report of the Expert Group on Mental Health Policy, stated that “individuals whose primary problem is substance abuse and who do not have mental health problems will not fall within the remit of mental health services”.
However, the 2020 policy document, Sharing the vision: a mental health policy for everyone, reversed this position and states that individuals’ co-existing mental health difficulties and addiction to either alcohol or drugs should not be prevented from accessing mental health services.
Alcohol Action Ireland is advocating that services take a ‘no wrong door’ approach to this issue and provide trauma-informed services for people with dual diagnosis and indeed all alcohol-related problems.
The connection between alcohol use and suicide has been highlighted in numerous reports, both Irish and international and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has pointed to the need for alcohol use reduction strategies as part of the approach needed to reduce the incidence of suicide.
One factor is that alcohol can reduce inhibitions enough for an individual to act on suicidal thoughts which they might not have done if not under the influence of alcohol.
In Ireland, where alcohol consumption levels are high and binge drinking is commonplace, alcohol is a factor in more than half of all completed suicides and over one third of cases of deliberate self-harm.
Call 999 or 112 if you or someone you know is about to harm themselves or someone else.