We know how harmful alcohol can be for adults as it is linked to 200 different diseases and injuries including heart disease, liver disease and seven types of cancer. But the risks are even greater for children and young people under 18 whose minds and bodies are still developing. Consultant psychiatrist Prof Eilish Gilvarry explains how alcohol can affect young people’s mental health.
As parents it is difficult to know what to do when it comes to children and alcohol. Perhaps you started drinking when you were young and alcohol seems to be everywhere, so what’s the harm in allowing your child to have the occasional drink at home?
According to the Chief Medical Officer (CMO)’s guidance the healthiest and best option for children is to drink nothing before they are 18, and it is especially important they don’t consume alcohol under the age of 15.
Alcohol is harmful to adults, but the risks to children can be even greater. Alcohol can damage children’s developing brains, liver, bones and hormones, affect their mood, and their mental health. Adolescent brains continue to develop and change until they are into their mid-20s. If children drink alcohol before they reach adulthood this can change or delay the development of the logical, thoughtful part of their brains.
Drinking can leave children feeling tired, sluggish and not able to perform at their best at school. It is also linked to stress, depression and self-harming behaviour. Alcohol and mental wellbeing are closely linked and often one of main reasons people drink alcohol is to change their mood – or mental state.
Like adults, children and young people might use alcohol as a coping mechanism to alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety or depression but since their brains are still developing, ‘self-medication’ can cause further problems.
It is important for teenagers to understand that alcohol will affect them differently from adults. Adults can get more subdued or slow down with alcohol, can be more excited and sometimes aggressive with alcohol, but in adolescents, alcohol can have different effects. With increased intoxication, young people become more energetic and more likely to be impulsive. Their judgement will be impaired, which means they may do things they regret or make wrong decisions. Drinking alcohol can lead to risky and impulsive behaviour including self-harm.
Therefore, it is important that young people are aware of the negative effects that alcohol can have on their mental health.
My advice is for parents is to talk to their children about the risks of alcohol and how it can affect their mental health. There is no such thing as a risk-free drink, for parents or their children, so explain the consequences of underage drinking.
Many parents know drinking increases the risks of accidents, injuries, smoking and drug taking but young people may also get hurt as as a result of violence and are more likely to engage in early and unprotected sex.
Be open and honest with your children, as parents have more influence than you realise. Think about how much you drink at home and how your children are exposed to alcohol.
Set clear rules with your children, make sure you know where they are going and if they will be exposed to alcohol if going to a party, staying at friend’s house or in your own house. Talk to your children about the risks of alcohol and what they will do if they are offered it somewhere. It is better for them to be prepared and to know how to handle themselves with confidence in different situations.
Prof Eilish Gilvarry is consultant psychiatrist in Addictions at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne & Wear NHS Foundation Trust.