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Isn't it about time that we started taking alcohol more seriously?


Opinion / by Marco Ricci


Over centuries, the UK has developed a close relationship with alcohol to the point that it is integral to the nation's identity. Looking back at events in his life and how alcohol has affected himself and others in it, Marco Ricci questions whether it's time to re-evaluate our nationwide love affair with booze.


My relationship with alcohol has always been a strange one. Like many people in the UK, once I hit the age of 18, the thought of alcohol excited me. Almost overnight, any social gathering at a friend’s house, party, or night out on the town became an opportunity to over-indulge in booze. On the nightclub scene especially, I was always eager to take part in some casual binge-drinking, seeking out the best deals I could to squeeze out as much alcohol as possible from every pound I gave to the bartender.


And I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only person of my age with this mindset. “I can’t wait to go out and get pissed!” was a regular phrase in my teenage years, announced with such joy and excitement that you’d be forgiven that the person saying those words had just won the lottery.


If it hadn’t been for my Italian heritage, I wouldn’t at all question this kind of attitude the UK has toward alcohol. My father, himself a Roma native who came to England in his teenage years, was the person who first opened my eyes to this nation’s relationship with booze. His lifelong career in the hospitality industry meant that he’d worked in pretty much every role you can imagine in restaurants and hotels before he eventually went on to own his own Italian restaurant for roughly 15 years.





In the early hours of many Sunday mornings, as the few remaining customers were finishing off the bottle(s) of wine that had accompanied their Saturday evening meal – and I was yearning for my bed after a busy 8-hour shift behind the bar – he would regularly turn to me and say “the people in this country have a bad relationship with alcohol.” Sometimes this would be triggered by a scuffle breaking out on the streets just outside his restaurant. “They’re not like Italians – we drink to complement our food, to bring out the flavours of what we’re eating, to relax us and let us enjoy our evening,” he would explain to me. “People here just drink to get drunk.”


Alcohol dependency in context


There’s not a lot that my father has ever said to me that I agree with. But, from my personal perspective, he was right. So many of my friends and colleagues throughout the years, either born in the UK or having grown up in the country, have taken pride in the ability to drink massive amounts of alcohol without succumbing to its effects on either their consciousness or their stomach. And countless times I’ve sat through long and winding recollections of what happened the night before, watching people wade through the dense fog of a hangover to piece together any possible memories they have whilst wearing a look of achievement on their face.


Of course, in the wider context of the nation’s population of just over 67 million people, in most cases this behaviour isn’t related to an issue. If we’re using a rough estimate that each age takes up about 1% of the overall UK population, just over 50 million people are able to legally drink alcohol across the country. Of those, just over 600,000 adults in England alone are considered dependent drinkers, equivalent to around 1% of all over-18s. So to flip that, around 99% of the UK’s adult population have control over their relationship with alcohol.

 

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But although 1% may not sound like a significant percentage of people (especially as it’s an estimate that doesn’t include Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) it’s a percentage that still accounts for a lot of people. A lot of people who are effectively reliant on alcohol to make them feel normal.


Within this number are a group of people who drink in association with a mental health issue. To be exact, in England between 2019 and 2020, 30,409 people who started treatment for alcohol abuse also had a mental health need identified. Now you might be thinking that this number is a pretty minuscule segment of the nation’s population (around 0.06% of all adults able to legally drink in the country, if we’re using the numbers I listed above). But what we need to take note of here is that most people with a drinking problem don’t get treatment for it. In fact, according to Alcohol Change UK, a whopping 82% of dependent drinkers don’t. Therefore, that 30,409 number is very likely to be a huge under-estimation of people who drink in accordance with a mental health issue.


A personal experience


This article isn’t purely driven by a desire to raise awareness of the numbers behind alcohol dependence in the UK. It’s also driven by how alcohol has personally affected me throughout my life, and continues to affect me to this day.


Although only formally diagnosed with anxiety at the age of 25, I can look back over my preceding years as an adult and recognise symptoms of anxiety. In particular for me, social situations were (and still are) where anxiety impacted me most, bringing with it a constant fear of rejection and failure. I know without a doubt that alcohol often acted as the solution for me in these situations when I was younger, giving me the confidence to hold my own in a group conversation, or get up on the dancefloor and dance like nobody was watching. It acted as the pacifier for those voices in my head telling me that I wasn’t funny enough, or worthy enough of my friend’s companionship.





I also know for a fact that this is something I find myself guilty of doing to this day. In recent years, there have been multiple occasions where I’ve been presented with a situation of meeting new people in a completely sober setting. And on almost every occasion, the concept of not having alcohol to ‘pull me through’ the situation has filled me with genuine terror.


Now, this isn’t a self-diagnostic diatribe I’m going on here. I am in no way alcohol dependent and to suggest so would be a disservice to the many people out there with a genuine alcohol problem who are suffering physical, social, financial, and emotional consequences.


But what does concern me is the number of people I have met in my life who are or have been in the same boat as me. All of those friends and colleagues I mentioned earlier who seemed to take pride in their drinking ability? They have all shared with me their mental health issues in the past too, often related to confidence, anxiety, and depression, and how alcohol helps. Are the people in my life really the only examples in this country of this kind of attitude toward drinking?


The other concerning part for me is the chain of events that leads to alcohol dependence. Dependence isn’t something that happens overnight – it develops over time. And if younger generations are being presented with such a glorified view of alcohol at quite literally the youngest age they can legally drink it, are we not drastically increasing the chances of them developing a dependence on it in later life, especially if they develop a mental health issue along the way?


The times they are a-changing


The topic of alcohol abuse is massive and complex. There are many factors at play in why people drink and my perspective is one of countless views on the topic. My personal experience also only offers an insight into why people with mental health issues may turn to alcohol and – in more extreme circumstances – self-medicate with it, without mentioning those who develop a mental health issue because of alcohol abuse. My perspective is also not intended in any way as anti-alcohol. Alcohol is a regular presence in my life that, for the most part, is something that brings me joy, and I’m sure that’s the case for the vast majority of people.


I just think that alcohol should be viewed through a far more serious lens than it currently is. It can, after all, have dramatic effects on our health and wellbeing which, even though most of us know about them, we seemingly shrug off. In some instances, it can have very similar effects to other addictive substances, such as cigarettes and opioids – two vices which, to me, feel like we take far more seriously than alcohol.


With all this said, there are positive signs that the glamorised view of alcohol is wearing thin in this country. Since 2005, the amount of alcohol consumed collectively across the UK has fallen, along with the number of people reporting drinking and the amount they drink – decreases that are particularly pronounced among younger people. The amount of people aged between 16 and 44 years who don’t drink at all has also fallen within the same timeframe.


Perhaps then, we're not so far off from the days where people don't have to make an excuse for not drinking.

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