By the time young people in Ireland reach adulthood, most of them are already drinking alcohol in a ‘harmful manner', a consultant psychiatrist has warned.
According to Dr Bobby Smyth, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, today's Irish teenagers are drinking at an earlier age compared to previous generations. This increases their risk of becoming dependent on alcohol ‘and is probably causing changes to their developing brains'.
"Upon entry into adulthood, most young people in Ireland are drinking in a harmful manner, according to accepted international standards. The more young people drink, the more likely they are to have depressive and anxiety symptoms.
"If alcohol is used by young people as a method of coping with stress and life's difficulties, it may hamper their ability to learn more effective and proactive coping strategies," Dr Smyth explained.
He made his comments at a national conference held by Alcohol Action Ireland, the national charity for alcohol-related issues. The conference was focusing on the role alcohol plays in mental health difficulties.
Also at the conference, Prof Ella Arensman, director of research with the National Suicide Research Foundation, presented new findings on the role of alcohol in cases of suicide and self-harm.
"Alcohol contributes to increasing rates of self-harm and it also causes increases of self-harm at specific times in the year, such as a peak of self-harm among women in July and August. This peak would not exist if alcohol were not involved," Prof Arensman said.
She also presented research which found that among men over the age of 40 who died by suicide, alcohol abuse was one of the strongest risk factors - present in three in four cases - in combination with depression and physical illness.
According to Alcohol Action Ireland CEO, Suzanne Costello, it is impossible to seriously tackle the issue of mental health in this country ‘without also taking decisive action to tackle our harmful relationship with alcohol'.
"Despite growing awareness of and openness around the subject of mental health in Ireland, as a society we have been very slow to acknowledge the very damaging consequences that alcohol can have for our mental health, particularly given that over half of Irish people drink in a harmful manner," she commented.
The conference, 'Facing ‘The Fear': Alcohol and Mental Health in Ireland', took place at the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin.