How alcohol affects your mental health

If you rely on alcohol to cover up your anxiety, you may soon find yourself drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence. PHOTO | COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • While the effects of alcohol can sometimes have a short term positive impact on our mood, in the long term it can lead to mental health. Drinking alcohol is linked to a range of mental health issues from depression and memory loss, to suicide.

According to a recent household survey, about 40 percent (16 million) Ugandans use alcohol and 1.6 million of them have an alcohol use disorder. Uganda has high alcohol consumption rates, with an estimated 9.5 litres of alcohol consumed per person over 15 years of age. This is higher than the world consumption rate of alcohol (6.4 litres).

For many people, alcohol is a luxury and it is taken to celebrate, socialise or even change one’s mood. However, there are more than 200 disease conditions associated with alcohol consumption. 

Alcohol is a depressant, which disrupts the balance of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in your brain and affects your feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Alcohol affects the part of your brain that controls inhibition (self-control) and once a person starts taking it, they always want to take more.

A 2005 Ministry of Health report shows that alcohol dependence is among the main causes of psychiatric morbidity in the country. At Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital, the national mental health facility, majority of the patients admitted at the Alcohol and Drug Unit (ADU) have an alcohol disorder.

According to a report by Makerere School of Public Health in setting up an epidemiological alcohol and drug abuse surveillance system for 2020, majority of the cases (about 69.2 percent) at ADU and Butabika National Referral Mental Hospital had an alcohol use problem.

Cecilia Dricuru, a psychiatric nursing officer at the Hospital, says currently, about 70 patients are admitted at the ADU and of these, 60 suffer from problems associated with alcohol abuse. ‘‘There are also 20 patients who walk into the hospital daily for counselling,” says Dricuru.

Alcohol and mental health 

According to Dr David Kalema, the executive director Hope & Beyond, alcohol slows down how your brain processes information and in the long run, reduces the amount of transmitters in the brain which can cause anxiety and depression. 

“Some people drink alcohol as a coping mechanism due to depression and anxiety. However, although they may feel relaxed, less anxious and more confident when drunk, as the alcohol wears off, the person will feel worse since alcohol withdrawal affects the brain and body. This will prompt them to drink more, which can start a cycle of dependence,” Dr Kalema says.

No amount of alcohol is safe to consume according to Dr Kalema and in the short-term, drinking too much can lead to alcohol poisoning, sleep problems, an upset stomach, bloating and migraines. Some people become reckless and aggressive.

Long-term alcohol misuse increases your risk of serious health conditions including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, liver disease and cancer. It can lead to social problems such as relationship break-ups, unemployment, financial difficulties and homelessness, which all take a toll on mental health.

“Regular heavy drinking is linked to symptoms of depression. It is, therefore, not advisable to take alcohol if you are taking antidepressants. If you rely on alcohol to cover up your anxiety, you may soon find yourself drinking more and more to relax. Over time, this can lead to alcohol dependence,” says Dr Kalema.

People who frequently take alcohol may develop psychosis, a severe mental state in which thought and emotions are so impaired that the person gets disconnected from reality.

Since alcohol can cause one to lose inhibitions and self-control, frequent alcohol users can act more impulsively, which may lead to actions such as self-harm and suicide attempts.  

Drinking too much can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. In extreme cases, people can even pass out and may not remember what happened. In some cases, excessive alcohol intake can also cause death.

Treatment for alcohol abuse disorder

A person needs to seek medical help if they experience tolerance (when a person develops a craving for alcohol and becomes restless until they find a drink, especially in the morning). The person may become preoccupied and cannot do anything without taking alcohol.

Such a person will experience problems at work or home. A medical assessment may reveal damage to internal organs such as the liver as well as the brain.

According to Dricuru, the treatment for this particular disorder depends on the severity of one’s condition and the level of alcohol in one’s body.

There is a complete assessment that should be done and from the findings, people with mild symptoms can be counselled and encouraged to reduce their alcohol consumption. Antipsychotic treatment is used to treat people with alcohol withdrawal symptoms which cause psychotic behaviour such as hallucinations and lack of sleep.

The best treatment for alcohol abuse is residential according to Dr Kalema, and the patients spend a minimum of three months at the rehab centre. Treatment at Butabika Hospital is free but private facilities may charge between Shs40,000 to Shs100,000 per day.

“We give the patient medicine that helps detoxify the body, offer counselling for mindset change and a life skill that would help them earn some money after leaving the facility,” he says.

Other mental problems 

Dr Kenneth Kalani, the deputy head of mental health and psychosocial division at Ministry of Health Ministry, says the commonest mental health problems in Uganda are anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression as well as alcohol and substance abuse.

According to the National Institute for Health Research, about 35 percent of Ugandans suffer from a mental disorder and 15 percent of them require treatment.

About 25 per cent of the adult population in Uganda suffers from depression and about 16 percent of the student population has signs of depression. Schizophrenia is at two percent, epilepsy is at three percent with children having a higher proportion and also varies in the different regions of the country. Children from the northern and central regions of the country have higher cases of epilepsy than other regions.

Other mental problems 

Dr Kenneth Kalani, the deputy head of mental health and psychosocial division at Ministry of Health Ministry, says the commonest mental health problems in Uganda are anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression as well as alcohol and substance abuse.

According to the National Institute for Health Research, about 35 percent of Ugandans suffer from a mental disorder and 15 percent of them require treatment.

About 25 per cent of the adult population in Uganda suffers from depression and about 16 percent of the student population has signs of depression. Schizophrenia is at two percent, epilepsy is at three percent with children having a higher proportion and also varies in the different regions of the country. Children from the northern and central regions of the country have higher cases of epilepsy than other regions.

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