Working to reduce alcohol harm

Tackling harmful drinking is crucial for improving mental health in Ireland

Alcohol’s role as a serious risk factor in mental health difficulties was examined by expert speakers at a national conference held by Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, in Dublin today (Wednesday).

Facing ’The Fear’: Alcohol and Mental Health in Ireland, took place at the Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street, where those in attendance heard about the impact that our harmful drinking is having on a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide.

The conference was opened by Minister Alex White, who recently brought forward a range of measures to deal with alcohol misuse and its related harms, which will be included in the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.

“It is impossible to be serious about addressing mental health in Ireland without also taking decisive action to tackle our harmful relationship with alcohol,” said Suzanne Costello, CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland.

“Despite growing awareness of and openness around the subject of mental health in Ireland, as a society we have been very slow to acknowledge the very damaging consequences that alcohol can have for our mental health, particularly given that over half of Irish people drink in a harmful manner,” said Ms Costello.

Dr Bobby Smyth, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and board member of Alcohol Action Ireland, said young people are particularly at risk: “Teenagers are now drinking at an earlier age compared to previous generations in Ireland. This is exposing them to increased risk of subsequent alcohol dependence and is probably causing changes to their developing brains.”

“Upon entry into adulthood, most young people in Ireland are drinking in a harmful manner, according to accepted international standards. The more young people drink, the more likely they are to have depressive and anxiety symptoms. If alcohol is used by young people as a method of coping with stress and life’s difficulties, it may hamper their ability to learn more effective and proactive coping strategies,” said Dr Smyth.

Professor Ella Arensman, Director of Research with the National Suicide Research Foundation, presented new research findings on the role of alcohol as a serious risk factor in self-harm and suicide.

“Alcohol contributes to increasing rates of self-harm and it also causes increases  of self-harm at specific times in the year, such as a peak of self-harm among women in July and August. This peak would not exist if alcohol were not involved,” said Prof Arensman.

Prof Arensman also presented research which found that, among men aged 40 years and older who died by suicide, alcohol abuse was one of the strongest risk factors, present in over 75% of cases, in combination with depression and physical illness.