In anticipation of mental health awareness week, this article looks at how alcohol affects mental health and who is making waves in the alcohol-free movement.

“Cheers! Alcohol IS good for you” – Daily Mail

“Wine is KEY to a longer life” – Express

“Boozing every day IS good for you” – The Sun

We bow to the superior knowledge of London’s tabloids. After all these years of worrying, we can sip that pint a little easier now as we prepare for extra years of gardening and getting our hair done weekly. But wait, isn’t alcohol bad for you?

It’s a curious yet predictable fact of life that these articles get shared faster than ones on the negative elements of alcohol. Annie Grace, author of This Naked Mind, writes: “An article about happy hour doing wonders for your heart carries more social currency than the study that disproves the relationship between wine and heart health.” Does this mean we share this kind of news to make us more popular?

I spoke to Andrew Misell, of Alcohol Concern, to find out how alcohol affects the mind. He said: “Alcohol is a drug that is very widely available and used as a pleasurable recreational substance. It enables you to distance yourself from your worries but in the long term it will lead to psychological problems.”

“Alcohol has certain immediate effects when you ingest it. The effects of that in terms of the nausea can last for a day or two. Some of them are lifelong. Those scars will not heal. Some damage can be reversed but that normally requires cutting down substantially.”

This isn’t that surprising as it sounds like the message hangovers give you, often before you say those words: “that’s the last time I’m ever going to drink.” Alcohol does affect mental health but as it’s ingrained in our society, can we live without it?

Laura Willoughby, 42, London, is the Founder of Club Soda, a group which aims to provide an alternative social life for people who want to cut down or quit. She decided to go sober six years ago and now holds Mindful Drinking Festivals to support the vast array of alternative drinks, many made in London.

The focus of Mental Health Awareness Week (14 to 20 May) this year is on stress. On the topic, Laura said: “Alcohol does help stress in a very small way, in a very short-term way, but after that it doesn’t and your brain is asking for more and more dopamine hits in order to keep you being happy. While it’s getting the dopamine hits, you’re getting drunker and drunker.”

“There’s a big lot of talk about how we are the most sleep deprived we’ve ever been as a society. There’s a really strong link with alcohol and depression and mental health. We need sleep to be resilient. Instead we’re drinking a bottle of wine in the evening to help us sleep.”

Laura advises meeting up with people for only an hour after work instead of staying out all night. She also recommends going to the cinema or for walks when seeing friends. One of the key principles of Club Soda is that quitting alcohol should not mean losing out on a social life but instead, encourage the creation of a healthy and positive one.

She said: “We do a lot of getting people through their first sober holiday. If you think about it, a birthday is a time to be nice to yourself but we generally self-harm ourselves by drinking. They find after six months, if you’ve been alcohol free, it’s like a broken bone healing. You feel more natural and comfortable and it gets a lot easier.”

One of the biggest problems for people trying to quit, is what to drink instead. There are a lot of alcohol-free beers, wines and drinks but they are not always available in pubs and bars. I interviewed a co-founder of Fitbeer, Beaky Kean, 27, of Bermondsey, for her take on the issue.

TC: Why is the beer called Fitbeer?

BK: “It’s a cross-over between a health drink and a beer. A lot of people think beer shouldn’t be related to health and fitness in any way, so it’s quite a bold move. We wanted to show it as a positive thing. It’s beer but it’s better. It’s unapologetically alcohol-free.”

TC: How niche do you think the market is? 

BK: “I think the whole alcohol-free category is following that of craft beer. Craft beer was really niche ten years ago and now your average Joe will go down the pub and order a Punk IPA. Craft beer’s quite mainstream now. Alcohol-free beer will take that route.

“Heinekens done a massive campaign. They spent millions on it in January. While they’re competition, it’s great for all of us in the industry. It’s brought a lot of attention to it.

TC: How would you describe the drink?

BK: “It’s a Bavarian Hells Lager, ‘Hells’ being German for ‘bright’ in reference to the golden colour of the drink. It’s full of earthy malts and bitter hops. My favourite moment is that first sip after a long day when you’re cooking or hanging out with friends.”

What we can take from this is that alcohol does have an impact on mental health and that stress is often a factor linking the two. For those who want to quit, there are an increasing number of options for non-drinkers which are becoming more widely available. Organisations like Club Soda help to provide an alternative community for non-drinkers and their Facebook group allows members to support each other. Not to mention you’ll get to try a load of delicious non/low alcoholic drinks too!

Club Soda can be found on Facebook here.


Words and Images by Tim Copeland