Mental Health and Alcohol

  • Post category:Blog

Guest Blog from Carmen Bryce, Communications Manager, Mental Health Ireland marking European Mental Health Week 2023

You might’ve seen the Irish alcohol brand advertisement of young friends heading off on a camping trip against the backdrop of the rugged Atlantic coast to enjoy a fun-filled weekend of surf, exploration, and craic. After the weekend is over they return to their stressful everyday lives and the dull hum-drum of routine before reuniting in their local pub to reconnect, relive their memories, and once again enjoy a refreshing pint. The ad also exploits our desire to retain our identities and youth beyond the responsibilities and pressures of life such as working for the ‘man’. The joyful and technicoloured freedom from monochrome life is only a bottle of cider away.

In the case of alcohol, marketing often links drinking to perceptions of what we’re seeking in life; friendship, relaxation, and empowerment. From cracking open a beer in front of the match, to mummy’s wine time to cocktails with the girls after a hard day at the office, alcohol is peddled as an escape from the stresses and monotony of our lives – an elixir that will hit all our reward receptors like a pinball machine on the way down. Good times and alcohol are a co-dependent culture.

This culture – the normalisation of using alcohol as an antidote to emotional and mental stress can trigger a cycle of increased use that feeds on itself. For some, routine alcohol use may be a means of masking deeper challenges, to numb, escape, cope, connect. This coping mechanism can turn into a bigger problem. Alcohol can have a boomerang effect on anxiety, interfering with our sleep cycle, making it tougher to get a full night of quality rest. Poor sleep contributes to anxiety, so reaching for alcohol to sooth anxiety may become a vicious circle.

When we drink, our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for decision-making, becomes suppressed and our inner child comes out to play, precariously without the necessary guidance and boundaries that we learnt as adults to survive. Alcohol encourages people to engage in more childlike behaviour – silly, giddy, fearless – which the advertising industry harnesses by peddling the image of child-like carefreeness that comes with a drink. After drinking, our prefrontal cortex begins to piece together the bits it can remember, and instills anxiety, often by exaggerating what actually happened so we’re less likely to inhibit that part of our brain with alcohol again. On top of this, the dopamine high release from alcohol will eventually be replaced by alcohol’s less pleasant effects: confusion, nausea, low mood, anxiety.

Contrary to what we’re led to believe by the advertising industry, having a drink is a quick but deceptive fix. While the desirable effects of alcohol are nearly instantaneous, the negative effects are delayed, often by several hours or even days. This time lag makes it hard to see the connection between alcohol and its negative effects on our mental health.

Grey area drinking is an emerging term for when the criteria for dependence is not met, they look like they’re functioning and can even give up alcohol for a while like for Dry January, but there is a problem with alcohol and with giving it up in the long term. People in this category are at risk of physical and mental health problems and the normalisation of problem drinking in Ireland means it goes under the radar.

There is power in knowledge, and educating people on not only the mental health impacts of alcohol and different ways to manage stress, but on the tactic used by the many marketing communications from celebrity endorsements to product sponsorship that tells us that alcohol is a way to cope.

In 2020, Mental Health Ireland and Alcohol Action Ireland teamed up with Alcohol Action Ireland to inform, educate and support people in the workplace with an interactive workshop to explore the mental health risks of drinking, alternative positive coping mechanisms and their own behaviours and relationship with alcohol. Like the labelling of alcohol products with health information including risks and harm which has been faced with persistent opposition from the alcohol industry, knowledge sharing, awareness raising and mental health promotion is a step toward a more drink-aware and empowered society. The debunking of myths about alcohol – such as it’ll make us feel and function better and the promotion of healthy coping tools that encourage social connections and self-care works against an advertising industry that works hard to keep that veil enact.


European Mental Health Awareness Week 22-28 May 2023