It is more important than ever to be aware of the dangers of alcohol use for our mental health and wellbeing, according to the president of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP).
‘In times of stress we can find ourselves drinking more often and more heavily because we think it will help us to feel relaxed, even calmer, but alcohol use can make matters much worse and have a detrimental impact on our mental health,’ said Associate Professor John Allan.
In a recent poll, one in five households reported buying more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak in Australia, and in those households where more alcohol was purchased, 70 per cent reported drinking more alcohol than usual and 28 per cent admitted to drinking to cope with anxiety and stress.
‘It is a different world, and the major changes we are all experiencing in our lives can give rise to social isolation, loneliness and stress, with people finding themselves with more time to fill which can lead to increased alcohol use,’ said Associate Professor Allan.
‘The evidence, however, is that people who consume high amounts of alcohol are vulnerable to developing mental health problems and this can be a contributing factor to conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders and even suicide.
‘Alcohol problems are also more common in people with existing mental health problems, an already vulnerable group of people during COVID-19, with a decline in mental health linked to an increase in alcohol use.
‘The link between alcohol and mental health problems is complex, with one sometimes leading to the other, or indeed exacerbating the other, and this impacts on individuals, friends and families, and workplaces.
‘It is recognised, furthermore, that people with an alcohol use disorder are at greater risk of COVID-19 not only because of the impact of alcohol on their health, but also because of difficulties they may have with physical distancing and their increased likelihood of experiencing homelessness or incarceration – an issue affecting people with mental illness as well.
‘Importantly, there are effective interventions, treatments and supports to suit the range of patterns of alcohol use, mental health conditions and circumstances people find themselves in, and people should not wait to reach out to their health professional for help.
‘For people with issues associated with alcohol, stigma remains high, so telehealth consultations from the privacy of their home may play an important role in overcoming this major barrier to treatment – telehealth can also improve access to mental health care, especially for people in rural and remote areas.
‘A number of successful programs exist that target young people at risk for depression as well as other alcohol and other drug use prevention programs shown to decrease substance use could be more adequately resourced and scaled up by governments at this time.’
The RANZCP President emphasised that alcohol misuse and poor mental health go hand in hand and are a significant public health concern.
‘There is an under-recognition of the prevalence and size of this problem, its impact on peoples’ lives across the life span, and the burden of disease on the health system and the community.
‘There are actions governments can take now to improve the access for people to appropriate treatment services and support no matter the setting (general practice, allied and community health services, specialist and alcohol and other drug services) where they present for assistance.
Given the current and anticipated longer term impacts of COVID-19, there also needs to be a comprehensive plan of action with commensurate investment to deal with the range of co-occurring alcohol and mental health problems that will continue to arise.
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For all other expert mental health information, visit Your Health in Mind, the RANZCP’s consumer health information website.
* Correction * (14 May 2020): This is a revised version of the 13 May media release which now includes a correction to the poll statistics cited noting ‘one in five households reported buying more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 outbreak […], and in those households […] 70 per cent reported […]’.