“People don’t realise the extent of the link between mental health and alcohol use”

By Nov.19, 2020

Alcohol Health Champions share their stories for Alcohol Awareness Week

This year Alcohol Awareness Week comes at a time when England is experiencing a national lockdown due to further rises in Covid-19 infection rates. During 2020 there has been much concern about how alcohol consumption patterns are changing as people find ways to manage uncertainty and anxiety. A new survey commissioned by Alcohol Change UK for Alcohol Awareness Week reported that almost one in three drinkers (29%) have been drinking at increasing or high risk levels over the past six months (over 14 units per week). Over half of drinkers (53%) said they have drunk alcohol for a mental health reason – such as feeling anxious, stressed or worried, feeling bored, having trouble sleeping, or feeling sad or low – at least once in the past six months. Read more here: https://bit.ly/3kNfViq

More positively, during lockdown we have seen lots of examples of how communities are coming together to help each other. A programme like CICA shows that with some training and support, volunteers can develop skills that make them valuable assets in their community to help tackle harm from alcohol and improve wellbeing. Some of our alcohol health champions have been sharing their thoughts on alcohol and mental health, something which they come across regularly.

We talked to Billy Durkin from The Lifestyle Service in Bury. Billy recruits, trains and supports the volunteers, and said: “There is a reoccurring link between alcohol use and poor mental health. Though the conversations that volunteers have with individuals can be brief, the impact can be massive for that individual. For the champions too, there is a real sense of satisfaction as they support someone to talk about their alcohol consumption and/or their mental wellbeing.”

The alcohol health champions – all local volunteers – have an accredited Level 2 qualification from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH). After finishing their training, the volunteers can use their knowledge and skills to offer simple, easy to follow advice to family, friends and the wider community. During the first lockdown in March, some Alcohol Health Champions even helped create a new animation about the work they do, to share the project more widely with others.

For Billy, the training is crucial in supporting the volunteers in their journey to help others. “The training programme is demanding, especially for individuals who may not have been in any formal education for decades. Volunteers support each other and build lasting relationships – you see their confidence and self-esteem grow. There is a real sense of achievement and satisfaction at achieving the RSPH Level 2 Award.”

Michael has been an Alcohol Health Champion for three years, since meeting Billy, who introduced him to the programme. Michael explains: “I wanted to become an Alcohol Health Champion because it was a chance to help others and do my best to support people in making a change in their lives. Being part of the programme has made me feel that I am empowering others to understand the issues and see what help is available. My involvement in CICA has helped me to feel a sense of doing something worthwhile and having a purpose within life. I can only hope that I have helped others with their mental health and wellbeing too.”

Janis, like Michael, has been a volunteer since 2017. She joined following personal experience of the damage caused by alcohol misuse. “My husband has had alcohol problems, so I find the work really rewarding as I know the difference it will make to people. People don’t realise the extent of the link between mental health and alcohol use – something I have learned about through my own experience. I don’t want other people to go through what we went through as a family.”

On the importance of this year’s mental health theme for Alcohol Awareness Week, Billy said: “We do find that some individuals are drinking alcohol as a way of coping with their poor mental health. Many people seem unaware of the link between alcohol and mental health, and the impact alcohol can have on their mental health. This year’s campaign linking alcohol and mental health can really make a difference and highlight the links and risks.”

Throughout the CICA project we have seen the difference that our volunteers can make to the mental health and wellbeing of those around them, as well as the positive benefits they gain themselves from being involved in the programme. For instance, many have gone on to gain further training, qualifications and in to work and many, like Michael and Janis, report a sense of purpose and increased confidence from being able to support people where they live to think about the impact of alcohol on their lives.

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