As a young person living in the UK, talking about sobriety often gets ridiculed. But why? It’s become a cultural norm for young Brits to drink and for those who refuse to promptly get ostracised in a grimly mocking fashion. Truth is, alcohol is woven into the very fabric of our social sphere and is staunchly defended when questioned. Delving deeper into the heart of this issue, we soon see that there lies a far more serious set of concerns about the way we continue to drink.

A Historic Drunken Love Affair

Historically, there is little doubt that our small island has had an intense love affair with ethanol-based spirits. Over the course of the last several thousand years, heavy drinking has often peaked in line with times of great economic, environmental and political turbulence. During the Early Middle Ages, for instance, poor living conditions meant that cholera outbreaks were rife so easy to brew lager and ale quickly became the safer alternatives to water because of their virus-killing yeast and boiling processes. Ironically, the early benefits of drinking may have slightly outweighed any bad side effects.

The popularity of beer continued well into Medieval England with the calorie-rich beverage becoming a staple part of many peoples’ diets, particularly in periods of famine, disease, and financial depression. Its sale in inns and taverns became a tradition whose legacy remains very much with us today, with the brewing industry serving as one of the longest-standing economic building blocks of our society. Binge drinking, however, is a different matter entirely. The dangers of overindulgence were first exhibited during the perilous ‘Gin Craze’ of 18th Century London infamously illustrated by William Hogarth in 1751.

The potential of alcohol to create a mass moral vacuum is depicted in Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ in a dark and disturbing way. The concentrated violence, prostitution and squalor may seem unfamiliar to us now, but concealed within these scenes lies a far more resonating sentiment; an ominous, underlying inner anguish. Addictive tendencies have been shown to peak in times of crisis and extreme stress, as individuals attempt to self-medicate themselves by other means. It should come as no surprise then that the word ‘alcohol’ derives from the ancient Arabic al-koh’l (or al-ghawl), which loosely translates to ‘soul-inhabiting demon’ or ‘body-eating spirit’. The question then looms: To what purpose, if any, does such a substance still serve us today?

Drinking as a Way of Coping

After struggling through wave after wave of stagnant lockdowns the UK now finds itself in a new era of ‘freedom’. An era that is undoubtedly tainted with uncertainty, but one that has thus far promised greater social opportunities. The return of nightclubs and crowded bars have restored a sense of normality to many who have missed taking to the streets to dance, sing and stagger together. But as the celebrations begin to ease our cultural obsession with drink remains ever-present. Alarmingly, the wider repercussions of this predilection have gone largely ignored.

No matter how much we try to block the past 19 months, experiencing a global pandemic has affected us all. For those who were fortunate enough to face up to the physical challenge, the mental battle has been a completely different story. In a recent quote, Dr Richard Piper, Chief Executive of Alcohol Change UK, stated:

‘COVID-19 has negatively affected our nation’s mental health, and has led millions to drink more heavily. Challenging the stigma and shame that many of us feel when we realise our drinking has gotten out of control is now more important than ever’.

Despite trends indicating that there has been an overall decline in drinking over the last several decades, there are more disconcerting signs that excessive and reckless drinking has increased, particularly amongst young people.

As university students returned to halls last month, alcohol appears ubiquitous and seemingly instrumental to forming new friendships and making lasting memories. Speaking to Daniel, a student from the University of Bristol, he reveals: ‘drinking has helped me massively. It’s given me the confidence to go out and meet new people. I’ve been able to do things I would of never dreamed of out of fear of feeling too stupid’. The darker side of the matter however, is that for many people alcohol has become more than just a social tool. Dependency on the substance as a coping mechanism for stress was explained by Engineering student Ellie: ‘I drink every night. It helps me forget all my worries. I know it’s probably not safe, but it feels normal because everyone does it. We always go out together. It’s a lifestyle that I’ve become accustomed to and felt lost without during Covid’.

From these fleeting remarks, it’s becoming clear that the sense of escapism that intoxication provides is more than just a ‘quick buzz’ for young people. It offers an easy opportunity to ignore one’s present circumstances while also providing that false, but all-important, sense of self-acceptance. A lack of adequate support systems has created a culture in which many youths find solace in heavy drinking. This is a dangerous phenomenon that has largely been swept under the carpet to the detriment of the nation’s mental health and physical wellbeing. 

The Road to Recovery 

In recent years, some effort has been made to increase public knowledge about alcohol safety limits. Adults are advised to drink no more than an average of 14 units per week (about seven wine glasses or six pints of beer), and it’s become a legal requirement for companies to state exactly how many units are in each can or bottle sold commercially. Just how effective these measures really are remains questionable, of course. Given the risk of brain damage, heart disease and various types of cancer, there is growing support for the introduction of graphic health warnings — akin to those used in tobacco packaging — on alcoholic products. While such visual deterrents may have some initial effect, they fundamentally fail to tackle the root cause of the emerging alcohol epidemic amongst young Brits: despair and anxiety.

Until alcohol dependency is recognised as a societal problem and not solely an individual one, there will be no serious challenge to the drinks industry that continues to monopolise the lives of so many vulnerable young people. Admitting one’s own issues with alcohol exposes a struggle that others may share. As a collective, it is vital that we start being open about our difficulties in order to step onto the road of recovery together.

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