Problem drinking ‘rife’ in middle-class homes as a result of coronavirus lockdown

Middle-class problem drinkers who have turned to alcohol in lockdown are missing out on help because health services “are not designed for them,” says the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

In an exclusive article for The Telegraph, Dr Adrian James said alcohol dependence – traditionally characterised as a homeless person “supping cheap cider” on the streets – was “rife in our warm and comfortable houses.”

Figures from Public Health England (PHE) showed that more than a fifth of those in the highest socio-economic group (ABC1s – 20.7 per cent) admitted drinking excessively in April, up from 13.2 per cent in February, while drinkers among those with the lowest socio-economic backgrounds (C2s and DEs) rose from 7.9 per cent to 17.9 per cent.

“It’s seen at the dinner table when that second bottle of wine is uncorked or when another large gin and tonic is poured, all done under the guise of socially acceptable drinking,” said Dr James.

“While far removed from the dramatic picture of hostels and street drinking there’s always been a body of other, more hidden problem drinkers. They still function in society as mortgage payers, job holders or retirees, but they would benefit from some specialist support to get things back on track. 

“The problem is that addiction services aren’t designed to help them. Services are mainly set-up to help those who have lost a lot and who have more complex problems like homelessness, debt and mental illness. 

“It is right that they are prioritised, but it means services aren’t able to provide support to functional drinkers who will often go on to develop heart, liver or kidney problems or, in some cases, premature death.”

Dr James warned the PHE figures suggested that one month into lockdown eight million people were drinking at levels that could lead to alcohol dependence and damage to people’s brains and bodies – and it was likely to get worse in a second lockdown with Christmas on the horizon.

Already 45 per cent of psychiatrists surveyed by the college said they had seen an increase in patients whose alcohol or drug use had led to a deterioration in their mental health.

“With less things to spend our money on, alcohol is a handy lubricant readily available to help ease the monotony of lockdown life,” said Dr James.

He said the possibility of reshaping alcohol and drug addiction services lay in a major Home Office-backed review by Professor Dame Carol Black, which is due to be published next month and is expected to paint a bleak picture.

Funding for addiction services has been cut by 25 per cent, while restructuring in 2013 that handed responsibility to local councils had led to a “race to the bottom” where contracts, re-tendered every three years, went to the cheapest bidder at the expense of specialist staff and training places, he said.

“This topsy turvy system is a cruel waste of lives and wastes taxpayers’ money. We need good frontline services to give more people the treatment they need early enough to prevent serious addiction,” added Dr James.

At present, people who might have a mental health problem spurring a drink dependence could not get treatment from mental health services until they had sorted their alcohol problem, for which there were few services.

A major investment, which the college calculate at £374 million, could enable services to meet existing demand – and help functional drinkers.

“Not everyone will emerge from lockdown alcohol dependent, but as the nation drinks more, many more people might succumb to addiction. It’s vital we stop this crisis in its tracks by offering the right support before it’s too late,” said Dr James.

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