Alcohol’s role as a serious risk factor in mental health difficulties put under the spotlight

Brian O’Connell, Conference Chair, Dr Philip McGarry and Dr Bobby Smyth

Alcohol’s role as a serious risk factor in mental health difficulties was put under the spotlight at a national conference held by Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues, recently.

Facing ’The Fear’: Alcohol and Mental Health in Ireland took place at the Royal College of Physicians on Kildare Street, where a packed conference room heard – through both expert speakers and personal testimony – about the impact that harmful drinking is having on a range of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide.

“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, welcoming attendees to the conference, which was part-funded by the National Office of Suicide Prevention.

“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.

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.

“We know about the adverse effects of alcohol consumption on children, families and communities and the impact it can have on mental health. The time has come to act. We should proceed by consensus as far as we can. But, to be effective we will have to be radical,” said Minister White.

“The nature of the challenge we are addressing requires a significant public health response. This is what the government has agreed and I hope and believe that, with the help of conferences such as this, it will gain the support of the broader community and society.”

Expert speakers at the event included Dr Bobby Smyth, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist; Professor Ella Arensman, Director of Research with the National Suicide Research Foundation; Dr Conor Farren, Consultant Psychiatrist, and Dr Philip McGarry, Consultant Psychiatrist.

Prof Arensman presented new insights from extensive data (covering more than 100,000 presentations for self-harm) and showed clear links between heavy drinking and rates of self-harm. Her many   striking findings included that women are now presenting with self-harm after heavy alcohol consumption in the same numbers as men, which is a new trend over the past five years.

“We have discovered a significant association between heavy drinknig and self-harm. Most significantly, we find that if we could end heavy dirnknig among adolescents and young people, we could reduce self-harm by 17 per cent in two to three years,” said Prof Arensman.

Dr Smyth said young people are particularly at risk and he outlined exactly why in an engaging presentation. “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.

The afternoon session of the conference heard a moving personal testimony from bereaved Mayo father John Higgins, who lost his 19-year-old son David to suicide in 2011. Mr Higgins recounted his story and called for immediate action to tackle the widespread availability of cheap alcohol, which he said would prevent many families like his suffering a similarly tragic loss.

Fr Pat Seaver, who is based in Limerick, told how he had officiated at the funerals of two 15-year-old girls in the past six weeks and he also spoke of the need to address our harmful drinking patterns, particularly among young people, if we are to address the huge human costs currently associated with our high levels of alcohol consumption.

See the videos of the speakers’ presentations here