By Kathryn Johnston

A leading Ulster University researcher has warned that we need to be aware of how much we drink at home following the closure of bars, clubs and hotels because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week, Justice Minister Naomi Long confirmed that off licences would be allowed to open.  She said: “Off licences are not listed as essential: however, they have been removed from the list of premises ordered to close.”

Dr Gillian Shorter – Reader in Psychology (Mental Health). (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

But Dr Gillian Shorter, Reader in Psychology, whose research topics include harm reduction, alcohol and drugs, has serious concerns.

“I’m worried about all the empty shelves where alcohol is sold.  It has to go somewhere and our NHS can’t take the strain.

“I recognise that we are living in very worrying times. 

“People are stressed, trying to home school kids, perhaps seeing much more of their partners and families than they are used to.

“It’s really easy to open a bottle of wine.  But there are risks that we have to be aware of. 

“Apart from the personal psychological and physical risks of drinking beyond safe limits, excess drinking has been associated with a higher incidence of domestic violence.  And what about the effects of normalising alcohol consumption by regularly drinking in front of children?  Added to that, there is an increased risk of falls, meaning that more of us may need to call on an NHS which is already at breaking point.

“It can be tempting to soothe worries by cracking open a bottle. But alcohol is actually a depressant, which can increase anxiety and stress rather than reduce it. That relaxed feeling you get when you have that first drink is because alcohol is starting to depress the part of the brain we associate with inhibition.

“As you drink more, more of the brain starts to be affected. When high levels of alcohol are involved, instead of increasing the pleasurable effects, a negative emotional response may take over, leading you to become angry, anxious, depressed or aggressive – and possibly exacerbating mental health issues.”

In Northern Ireland, mental illness is the largest cause of ill health and disability. We have higher levels of mental ill health than any other region in the United Kingdom.

Two years ago, the amount of suicides in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement had already risen to 5,400, compared to the number of people killed during 30 years of the troubles at around 3,600.

So instead of sleepwalking into the abyss, what can we do?

Ms Shorter says that one good tactic may be to delay the time we start drinking during the day.

“Look at your body and your mood.  Are you hungry, tired, bored?  There is often a window during which we are more likely to take a drink.  For many, that time is between four pm and seven pm.

“So try to find another activity during that time.  After seven pm, you may no longer feel like a drink, and at least you will have delayed the time you start drinking.

“Keep within health guidelines of 14 units a week, which is the equivalent of 14 single measures of spirits, seven pints of average-strength lager and seven 175ml glasses of average-strength wine.

“And make sure you have at least a couple of alcohol free days each week.

“People do enjoy a drink – and that’s good.  But we have to be aware of the risks,” added Ms Shorter.

If you would like further advice on safe limits of alcohol, Ms Shorter suggests visiting the websites https://drugsandalcoholni.info/ if you live in Northern Ireland, or if you live in the Republic of Ireland, https://www2.hse.ie/alcohol/

 
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