“When the wine goes in, strange things come out.” ~ Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, The Piccolomini, 1799
Alcohol consumption is part of our daily lives. It is used and enjoyed in most developed and developing countries around the world. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant even though it is commonly mistaken to be a stimulant (Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2005).
Alcohol is a generic term for ethanol which is found in drinks intended for human consumption. Other forms of alcohol, including methanol, which is more toxic to humans than ethanol and therefore not suitable for human consumption (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2009). Alcohol is produced when certain food stuffs such as barley, grapes and hops are fermented by combining yeast and sugar (Barlow & Durand, 2009).
People use alcohol for a wide range of reasons and in different social and cultural contexts. They may drink for sociability, cultural participation, religious observance or as a result of peer influence. Individuals may also drink for pleasure, relaxation, mood alteration, enhanced creativity, intoxication, addiction, boredom, habit, to overcome inhibitions or to escape or forget troubles’ (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2009).
Whatever the reason, most of us have consumed some kind of alcohol at some point in our lives. One of the main perceived benefits of drinking alcohol is that it is liberating and empowering. The immediate pleasurable effect of drinking alcohol is to relax, lessen inhibitions and promote a sense of freedom and wellbeing. This is often experienced as heightened confidence.
Moderate use of alcohol is usually accepted. However, alcohol is commonly misused. When this occurs, it can have drastic effects on the consumer. Although it varies between individuals, there is a relationship between the concentration of alcohol in the blood (Blood Alcohol Concentration – BAC) and its effects. Mild euphoria and stimulation of behaviour occur initially with minor effects on performance which become more pronounced as the concentration of alcohol rises (Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia, 2005).
Prolonged alcohol use can lead to psychological damage. Research has demonstrated a strong association with alcohol misuse and mood disorders particularly depression and anxiety. The reciprocal implications of this suggests that alcohol on one hand may be used in an attempt to self medicate against various mood disorders, while on the other hand it can also exacerbate mood disorders if used in excess (Prince, Akincigil, Hoover, Walkup, Bilder, Crystal, 2009; Agabio, Marras, Gessa, & Carpiniello, 2007).
For example, studies have found that people with alcohol disorders often suffer from some kind of depression whereby to relieve the symptoms of the depression, they will often embark in excessive alcoholic use; which in turn exacerbates their depression.
The prevalence of depression in alcohol abusing/dependent individuals range from 15 to 70%, including primary depression. Depression ranks high among mood disorders that are comorbid with excessive alcohol use (Butcher, Mineka and Hooely, 2005).
The literature surrounding anxiety suggests that individuals with social phobia often feel a lot more comfortable in social settings if they have used alcohol (Abrams, Kushner, Reinertsen, 2002). Comorbidity of social phobia in excessive alcohol users is quite common. Changes in personality such as increased irritability, impaired reasoning and poor judgment are said to be consequences of excessive alcohol use (Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2005).
There is also a well established comorbidity between schizophrenia and heavy alcohol use too (National Health and Research Council, 2009). It is suggested that heavy alcohol use may increase the severity of common symptoms associated with schizophrenia such as hallucinations.
It needs to be clarified that while research has found clear associations between these psychological disorders and excessive alcohol use, there is still further clarity required on why these links are there.
Excessive use of alcohol can have adverse impact not only on the individual user, but also on the general community. Heavy alcohol use has been implicated in increased incidents of violent crime. Family units are often affected if one member of the family is a heavy alcohol user (Butcher, Mineka & Hooley, 2005). Family issues such as marital breakup, domestic violence and spouse abuse are strongly tied to high use of alcohol (Skrtic, Karlovic, Kruljac, 2008; Ogborne, 2000).
Risk behaviours such as drinking and driving and inappropriate sexual behaviours are also common practices linked to alcohol use. Alcohol is also considered to be a causal factor in most motor vehicle accidents. Financial problems and job loss are also associated with high risk alcohol use (Shand, Gates, Fawcett & Mattick, 2003).
The work force is impacted as personality and poor judgments deteriorate due to excessive use of alcohol. A study conducted in Australia found that $437m was lost in 2001 due to alcohol related absenteeism (Pidd, Berry & Roche, 2006). In the UK, a study conducted in 2001 found that alcohol related work absenteeism had an economic cost of an average £1.5bn per year (Institute of Alcohol Studies, 2009).
This article is an extract of Mental Health Academy’s Alcohol Addiction PD course.