Psychological and social economic effects of alcohol abuse

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Alcohol consumption is part of our daily lives. It is used and enjoyed in most developed and developing countries around the world. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant even though it is commonly mistaken to be a stimulant. Alcohol is a generic term for ethanol which is found in drinks intended for human consumption. Other forms of alcohol, including methanol, which is more toxic to humans than ethanol and therefore not suitable for human consumption. Alcohol is produced when certain food stuffs such as barley, grapes and hops are fermented by combining yeast and sugar.

People use alcohol for a wide range of reasons and in different social and cultural contexts. They may drink for sociability, cultural participation, religious observance or as a result of peer influence. Individuals may also drink for pleasure, relaxation, mood alteration, enhanced creativity, intoxication, addiction, boredom, habit, to overcome inhibitions or to escape or forget.

Whatever the reason, most of us have consumed some kind of alcohol at some point in our lives. One of the main perceived benefits of drinking alcohol is that it is liberating and empowering. The immediate pleasurable effect of drinking alcohol is to relax, lessen inhibitions and promote a sense of freedom and wellbeing. This is often experienced as heightened confidence.

Moderate use of alcohol is usually accepted. However, alcohol is commonly misused. When this occurs, it can have drastic effects on the consumer. Although it varies between individuals, there is a relationship between the concentration of alcohol in the blood and its effects. Mild euphoria and stimulation of behavior occur initially with minor effects on performance which become more pronounced as the concentration of alcohol rises.

Psychological Effects

Prolonged alcohol use can lead to psychological damage. Research has demonstrated a strong association with alcohol misuse and mood disorders particularly depression and anxiety. The reciprocal implications of this suggests that alcohol on one hand may be used in an attempt to self-medicate against various mood disorders, while on the other hand it can also exacerbate mood disorders if used in excess .

For example, studies have found that people with alcohol disorders often suffer from some kind of depression whereby to relieve the symptoms of the depression, they will often embark on excessive alcoholic use; which in turn exacerbates their depression. The prevalence of depression in alcohol abusing/dependent individuals range from 15 to 70%, including primary depression. Depression ranks high among mood disorders that are comorbid with excessive alcohol use.

The literature surrounding anxiety suggests that individuals with social phobia often feel a lot more comfortable in social settings if they have used alcohol. Comorbidity of social phobia in excessive alcohol users is quite common. Changes in personality such as increased irritability, impaired reasoning and poor judgment are said to be consequences of excessive alcohol use.

There is also a well-established comorbidity between schizophrenia and heavy alcohol use too. It is suggested that heavy alcohol use may increase the severity of common symptoms associated with schizophrenia such as hallucinations.

It needs to be clarified that while research has found clear associations between these psychological disorders and excessive alcohol use, further clarity is still required on why these links are there. Alcohol consumption can have adverse social and economic effects on the individual drinker, the drinker’s immediate environment and society as a whole. Indeed, individuals other than the drinker can be affected, for example, by traffic accidents or violence.

Social Effects

Excessive use of alcohol can have adverse impact not only on the individual user, but also on the general community. Heavy alcohol use has been implicated in increased incidents of violent crime. Family units are often affected if one member of the family is a heavy alcohol user. Family issues such as marital breakup, domestic violence and spouse abuse are strongly tied to high use of alcohol.

Risk behaviors such as drinking and driving and inappropriate sexual behaviors are also common practices linked to alcohol use. Alcohol is also considered to be a causal factor in most vehicle accidents. Financial problems and job loss are also associated with high-risk alcohol use. The work force is impacted as personality and poor judgments deteriorate due to excessive use of alcohol.

Drinking can impair how a person performs as a parent, a partner as well as how s/he contributes to the functioning of the household. It can have lasting effects on their partner and children, for instance through home accidents and violence.

Children can suffer Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, when mothers drink during pregnancy. After birth, parental drinking can lead to child abuse and numerous other impacts on the child’s social, psychological and economic environment.

The impact of drinking on family life can include substantial mental health problems for other family members, such as anxiety, fear and depression.

Drinking outside the home can mean less time spent at home. The financial costs of alcohol purchase and medical treatment, as well as lost wages can leave other family members destitute. When men drink it often primarily affects their mothers or partners who may need to contribute more to the income of the household and who run an increased risk of violence or HIV infection.

Social and economic costs cover the negative economic impacts of alcohol consumption on the material welfare of the society as a whole. They comprise both direct costs - the value of goods and services delivered to address the harmful effects of alcohol, and indirect costs - the value of personal productive services that are not delivered as a consequence of drinking. Estimating the costs of the impact of alcohol on the material welfare of society is often difficult and requires estimates of the social costs of treatment, prevention, research, law enforcement, lost productivity and some measure of years and quality of life lost.

(Dr Karki has a M.V.Sc in Preventive Medicine in Public health from Philippines, and PGT Meat inspection and slaughter house management from India)

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