As part of Children’s Mental Health Week, Sue Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy at Balance, highlights the impact alcohol can have on children and young people’s mental health.
It’s Children’s Mental Health Week (7-13 February 2022) and this year’s theme is Growing Together. It’s encouraging children and adults to consider how they have grown and how they can help others to develop further in the future.
It comes as a time when some experts have warned of a crisis in children’s mental health. For many of us, the Covid-19 pandemic put our mental health under more pressure and scrutiny than ever before. Just like adults, children and young people are vulnerable to the pressures of anxiety, depression and stress, in a time of their lives when exams, social lives, relationships and future aspirations have all been thrown into turmoil. And just like adults, many children and young people have looked for coping mechanisms to help them deal with these anxieties.
Whilst we know that the number of adult ‘risky drinkers’ has spiralled during the pandemic, we know less about drinking patterns amongst children and young people since March 2020. On the surface of it, although socialising outside the home became much more difficult for many people, statistics show that drinking increased significantly within domestic environments – and it’s possible that some children were introduced to alcohol because of that. Similarly, it has been suggested that many young people enjoyed their first taste of freedom – and alcohol – after lockdown lifted in the summer months of 2020 and 2021. Whatever the case, alcohol was certainly portrayed as a key ‘coping mechanism’ for dealing with the pressures we’ve all suffered over the past two years.
So this is where it becomes relevant from a mental health perspective – whilst alcohol might not be the cause of children’s mental health problems, it is clear that some young people have turned to alcohol as a means of trying to deal with their worries. But as with adults, whatever issues they are facing, we know that alcohol is harmful to mental health. As a depressant, alcohol is known to lower mood and it is strongly associated with a range of mental health conditions, from anxiety to dementia. Any parent knows how challenging teenage emotions can be – and alcohol destabilises these. In addition, alcohol use at a young age is associated with a raft of risky behaviours, such as smoking, illegal drug use, truancy from school and unprotected sex – all of which, in turn, can impact on mental health and well-being. So whilst it’s easy to assume that alcohol is a ‘rite of passage’ and a relatively harmless substance for our kids, all of the evidence shows that the best way we can protect our children’s mental and physical health, is to delay the onset of alcohol use for as long as possible.
Since 2017, Balance has run the Alcohol Free Childhood programme of work aimed at giving every child in the North East the chance to grow up free from the impact of alcohol, and to delay the moment of their introduction to alcohol. We have raised awareness through the “What’s the Harm” campaign and sought parents’ insight to discover more about the relationship between children and alcohol in homes.
So what have we learned? We know that while most parent will have “the conversation” about drugs or smoking, that doesn’t always happen around alcohol. That, in part, is probably down to the fact far more parents drink and there’s uncertainty about the right approach. Every parent wants to protect their child, and many will allow or encourage a sip in the belief that it’s a protective factor – helping to take away the curiosity around alcohol. But there is now absolutely compelling evidence that the younger children are introduced to regular alcohol, the more likely they’ll drink at risky levels as adults. In the words of one father, once children think that drinking is allowed, it opens a Pandora’s box that can’t be shut.
This means many children at a strikingly young age – 10 or younger are being offered an alcoholic drink, sometimes even if they’re not bothered about drinking themselves. We all support the over-18 law in off licences and shops but national surveys show most of the alcohol children drink comes from the family home.
We have spoken to treatment service providers, teachers, family charities and doctors, children and parents who have been affected by alcohol. All have a story to tell. In particular the tragic story of North East mum Joanne Goode who lost her daughter aged 16 after drinking alcohol at a New Year’s Eve party has been seen by partners and has appeared in the national media. Other young people have told how alcohol has led to situations where they felt in trouble or at risk
It is clear that parents have a right to know about the risks and an appetite to find out more, with thousands of downloads of our parents’ guide and the What’s the Harm campaign appealing everywhere from the radio and Facebook, to flyers, posters and toolkits being handed out in local communities by partners, from schools, to local authorities, to the police. So helping children to delay drinking for as long as possible is vital. But the solutions are much more complex than this.
Price is a key driver of adult and youth drinking. It is a scandal that in 2022, people can still buy a week’s worth of alcohol for the price of a high street coffee. For this reason, we campaign on both minimum unit price and a reform of the alcohol duty laws which currently favour the type of cheap, high strength ciders often chosen by young people and street drinkers. We also need action on alcohol marketing, which numerous studies show makes children feel more positively towards alcohol. The Euro 2020 football tournament was a reminder of how alcohol companies will use sports and celebs as vehicles to promote drinking as normal and desirable.
Despite some evidence that children are drinking less than they did in the “noughties”, it is clear that as with adults, alcohol harm is everywhere – and the impact can be felt across physical and mental health. Doctors warn they are seeing people with a raft of alcohol-related problems at a younger age and alcohol deaths hit record highs in the pandemic. With mental health in the spotlight more than ever before, we owe it to our children to look at solutions which protect them from alcohol harm and particularly the impact it can have on their mood and self-esteem