Alcohol and Mental Health
The relationship between alcohol and mental health is complex. Alcohol is sometimes used by people to try and help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, but excessive drinking is likely to make those symptoms worse. Managing your drinking and getting the right support are crucial to good mental health.
About 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental ill health each year.
Can alcohol affect my mental health?
Alcohol has been described as ‘the UK’s favourite coping mechanism’, and many of us do drink to try and help manage stress, anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems.1 This is sometimes called ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol. Unfortunately, although alcohol can help us feel relaxed initially and give us a brief feeling of euphoria, the effects are short-lived and the long-term negative consequences of drinking a lot over a long period of time can be quite harmful:
- Overuse of alcohol can contribute to the worsening of symptoms of many mental health problems. In particular, it can lead to low mood and anxiety
- As the immediate feeling of calm after drinking fades over time, you may feel worse than before
- Post-drinking hangovers can be particularly difficult, with the usual headache and nausea being accompanied by feelings of depression and/or anxiety
- Using alcohol in this way can mean that the underlying mental health problems aren’t addressed
If you come to rely on alcohol to manage your mental health problems, that reliance can itself become a problem. You may well find that your drinking starts to get in the way of other activities and puts a strain on your relationships – both things that can undermine your mental wellbeing
Alcohol and depression
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems, with around one in ten people suffering in the UK in any year.2 Depression and heavy drinking have a mutually reinforcing relationship – meaning that either condition increases a person’s chances of experiencing the other.3 For that reason, managing your alcohol intake is one way of reducing your risk of developing depression. If you do experience depression, reducing the amount you drink may help to manage symptoms.
Can I drink if I have mental health problems?
If you struggle with depression, anxiety, or other mental health problems, but would like to drink, the best advice is to stick within the Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines by not having more than 14 units of alcohol per week. That means about six pints of lager, or six standard glasses of wine, spread out over three or more days and with a few days off. Some people find that it’s best for them to stop drinking, in order to improve their symptoms. Only you will know what works best for you. If you are taking any kind of medication for a mental or physical health condition it’s always worth asking your doctor or your pharmacist whether you can drink alcohol while you’re taking it, and whether they’d advise changing your drinking habits in any way.
Physical brain changes
Long-term heavy drinking can also cause physical changes to the brain, leading to difficulties reasoning, remembering, and understanding. These changes are sometimes referred to as alcohol-related brain damage (ARBD), alcohol-related brain injury (ARBI), or even ‘wet brain’.
What to do if you are struggling
If you’re worried that you may be drinking too much, the first thing to remember is not to blame yourself, or anyone else. There are all sorts of reasons that any of us might get into a habit of drinking too much or too often and recognising that things might have got out of hand is the first step to getting back on track.
The information on this webpage has been adapted from resources created by Alcohol Change UK for Alcohol Awareness week. Further information is available on the Alcohol Change UK website.
Further Alcohol Hub information and support: