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In 2022, we must overhaul the way we treat alcoholism

This piece was originally published on the Conservative Home website.

For many of us, an invaluable and irreplaceable component of Christmastime is drinking alcohol. It certainly is for me; in fact, this very piece comes off the back of an extremely enjoyable Christmas pint at my local village pub (the Bell in Feering, Essex – in case anyone is interested in paying this exceptional place a visit).

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Christmas is a time of relaxation and merriment at the end of a long, hard year – and alcohol can be a great catalyst for bringing people together and maximising Christmas cheer.

But for those people who are sadly addicts, Christmas can be the most dangerous time of year, with the sheer availability and abundance of alcohol only ratcheting up the dependency that consumes them. The loneliness and poor mental health that so often accompany alcoholism can intensify too, as in the mind of the addict these problems contrast strongly with the warm, happy togetherness of the festive season.

Needless to say, this vicious cycle too often leads to one place: the bottle.

Christmas 2021 comes after two particularly tragic years for alcoholics. A perverse by-product of the coronavirus pandemic has seen a surge in alcohol abuse, with deaths from alcohol-specific causes rocketing from 7,565 in 2019 to 8,874 in 2020 – a staggering increase of nearly 20 percent.

This is hardly surprising; as pubs closed, people resorted to drinking cheaper and stronger alcohol at home. Off-licence sales of beer jumped by 31 percent and spirits by 26 percent during that year alone.

Far too often, the fact that alcoholism affects not just the addict themselves but also the people around them is tragically overlooked. Growing up as a child of an alcoholic, I know all too well that the extent of a parent’s drink problem has a directly proportionate impact on the wellbeing of the child. The worse my Mum’s drinking got, the more acute my shame, embarrassment and insecurity would become.

Considering this, it is no surprise that children of alcoholics are twice as likely to suffer educational disadvantage, three times more likely to consider suicide and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.

So this Christmas, it’s especially important to remember the catastrophic impact that alcoholism has on the individual, those around them and wider society. As we look forward to 2022, we must consider the ways we can stem the tide of alcohol abuse that has engulfed this country particularly over the past two years.

To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, we need to get tough on alcoholism and tough on the causes of alcoholism.

We must move away from any notion that alcoholism is solely – or even mostly – a physical problem. Of course, the terrible physical effects of excessive drinking, from high blood pressure to liver cancer, mustn’t be played down; but these are almost always symptoms of deep-seated mental health problems.

This means that the way the NHS treats severe alcoholism needs to stretch further than an insufficient combination of the treatment of physical illnesses and gentle advice around cutting down. Alcoholism needs to be met with a far more robust mental health response to really target the source of the problem.

Alongside the far more effective integration of physical and mental health treatment, it is vital for our social care sector to play a more active role in combatting the scourge of alcoholism. Over the past two and a half years, my Mum has been in and out of hospital four times as a result of drinking herself into an oblivion. The sheer level of self-neglect was not just at stratospheric levels, but also blindingly obvious for anyone to see.

Yet it wasn’t until her fourth hospitalisation that social services became involved in earnest and decided that they needed to intervene.

This belated, lacklustre and disjointed approach (which, I hasten to add, is not the fault of the brilliant social and care workers across the country) is terrible for the health and wellbeing of the addict and places an avoidable and immense strain on the NHS. Had social services been involved from the off, I have no doubt that my Mum could have avoided multiple hospital visits. Instead, she was lucky to survive.

Alongside strengthening the way we treat the symptoms of alcoholism, we also need to tackle the root causes far more effectively. While there simply isn’t the space here to analyse the myriad of causes behind addiction, I want to highlight what is so often the prevailing factor: loneliness.

Loneliness and heavy drinking all too often go hand-in-hand, creating a vicious cycle of spiralling alcohol consumption and isolation. Organisations such as the Jo Cox Foundation and the APPG on Loneliness have done some fabulous work around raising awareness of this issue and highlighting the importance of shaping huge swathes of government policy around the need to tackle the problem.

From closing the digital divide to loneliness-proofing public transport and housing, 2022 needs to be the year that we focus relentlessly on developing the intelligent policies that tackle high levels of social seclusion. This is of course particularly important in the aftermath of the successive lockdowns, which while necessary have by their very nature increased levels of loneliness.

Next year, we all hope, will be the year we recover from the extraordinarily difficult Covid years. It is vital that this recovery programme includes tangible and robust measures to slow the rate of addiction growth and enhance the ways in which we treat alcoholism.

Doing so wouldn’t just transform the lives of people who have fallen prey to alcohol abuse and those close to them; it would strengthen our brilliant health service and bring about the type of far-reaching social reform that any Conservative would be proud of.

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