We cannot drink away our sorrows

the relationship between alcohol and mental health in Ireland

Homer Simpson once said alcohol was the “cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”. Perhaps this sums up best our relationship with alcohol in Ireland. When we are happy, we drink. When we have something to celebrate, we drink. When we are stressed, we drink. When we are lonely, we drink. But in reality alcohol cannot solve our problems, and according to speakers at an Alcohol Action Ireland conference in Dublin last week, it is a serious risk factor in mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide.

Addressing the conference Facing ‘The Fear’: Alcohol and Mental Health in Ireland, Suzanne Costello, CEO of Alcohol Action Ireland said it is impossible to be serious about addressing mental health in Ireland without also taking decisive action to tackle our harmful relationship with alcohol.

Growing awareness

“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,” she said.

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,” she said.

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.

Dr Conor Farren, Consultant Psychiatrist at St Patrick’s University Hospital, said there has been a 100% increase in alcohol related deaths in the last 10 years. He said the depressive effects of alcohol can occur days after drinking, and that “alcohol can bring on suicidal ideas and makes people disinhibited enough to act on those ideas”.

Dr Bobby Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, 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,” he said.

Dr Smyth said that while teenagers get bad press for alcohol abuse, they are “apprentice adults” who are going to make mistakes.

He said the purpose of adolescence is to pick up coping mechanisms for adult life and the message they receive from society is that alcohol is associated with a positive state, so it is up to adults to change the culture of drink in Ireland.

“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.

Parents influence

He pointed out that parents often underestimate their influence on their children, and their own drinking increases the risk of their children drinking, whereas giving alcohol to children in the home in the “naïve perception that it will reduce risk”, actually “takes off the brakes and escalates it”.

He recommended that parents need to establish clear rules in the home and monitor their children’s activity. They need to build up warmth and affection in their relationship with their children and use positive communication.

John Higgins, a Mayo father whose 19-year-old son died by suicide in 2011, shared the heartbreaking story of his son’s last day alive. David had started drinking at 18, late for an Irish teenager, but it was the means of his drinking that worried his parents. On this particular Saturday night David had planned to go to the pub and was “standing up in front of the mirror and putting gel in his hair”. He went to a house party after the pub, and when he wasn’t home by 6am John had a gut feeling that something was wrong and decided to ring his son. David was sobbing, but wouldn’t speak. His sister went out to find him while his mother Anne kept him on the phone, but then they heard someone shout “he’s in the river”. “He had left his phone on the bridge and gone in,” John said. It took two weeks for search parties to find David’s body, and his was one of three bodies recovered from the River Moy over a five-day period.

David’s parents decided to speak publicly because they felt the culture of cheap alcohol and house parties contributed to their son’s death. “The reason he is where he is today, is because of alcohol,” John said. “David’s story does not change, there is no happy ending, and it will happen again.”

John said that “price and availability” of alcohol is the issue and it is not just for the Government to address, “it’s up to everybody” to change the culture of drinking in Ireland.

Limerick priest, Fr Pat Seaver, also called for a culture change in Ireland. Fr Pat is curate at St Munchin’s Parish Church and recently presided over the funeral of two 15-year-old girls who died by suicide in the space of a few weeks.

Chloe Kinsella was found in the River Shannon six days after she went missing from her home after drinking. Fr Pat said her parents decided to try to reach out to other young people, so that some good could come out of her death.

Fr Pat gave a powerful homily at Chloe’s funeral Mass warning against the dangers of alcohol and pleading with all young people to “live life to the full”, after consulting with the Kinsella family and the local school. He had asked young people what could he say in the sermon that might prevent other teenagers from taking their own lives, and they said to “get them to think about their parents and the horrors that their death will leave in the family, especially with the mother and father.”

Set boundaries

“At home young people’s drive is to fly the nest, to be independent, to try out things, to experiment. The parents on the other hand are there to protect them and set boundaries. So there is a kind of built in conflict, but if young people can understand that this love, that this tough love in action – that was the trust of the homily,” he told The Irish Catholic.

“We need a cultural shift,” Fr Pat said. “It’s going to take a lot of time and we all have a role to play. It’s for the whole of society and we have to keep chipping away, and we have to pray.”


Alcohol Facts

  • Alcohol-related disorders accounted for 1 in 10 first admissions to Irish psychiatric hospitals in 2011.
  • The World Health Organisation estimates that the risk of suicide when a person is abusing alcohol is eight times greater than if they were not.
  • Alcohol was a factor in 4 out of 10 cases of self-harm recorded in Ireland in 2012.
  • Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Irish men aged 15-24.
  • Alcohol is a factor of all suicides in Ireland.