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Alcohol and young people's mental health

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Mental health is the number one health issue for young people.

Young people are particularly vulnerable when it comes to alcohol’s effects on mental health, as their brains are still developing. 

Alcohol as a way to cope for teenagers

Part of being a teenager is finding our own way to cope with tough times, to manage when things go wrong, and to handle our feelings.

Every time we deal with hard situations or negative emotions, we get stronger and more resilient, so we are better able to cope the next time. 

If we rely on alcohol, we may miss out on developing coping skills and resilience, which can leave us isolated or vulnerable when we are older.

Alcohol and social skills

The time of your life?

Making friends, starting romantic relationships and having fun with your friends are big parts of being a teenager. 

When it’s going well, it can be the best time of your life, but the teenage years can also be a time of self-doubt, needing to fit in and anxiety about not being confident enough, popular enough or attractive enough.

How does alcohol fit in?

Alcohol can be a quick-fix for young people as they try to deal with these situations and feelings, giving a sense of confidence, freedom from worries and a feeling of fitting in with the group.

Unfortunately, the quick fix can make things worse in the longer term. Relying on alcohol can mean a young person misses out on developing the true confidence that comes from learning social skills and building real relationships. They may find it hard to have fun or socialise without alcohol.

Alcohol can also affect a young person’s self-esteem if they embarrass themselves while drunk, engage in risky behaviours or do things they regret. And in the age of social-media sharing, drunken bad behaviour can become public knowledge, leading to shame and lasting stigma.

You might also like to read Social anxiety and shyness for advice on coping without alcohol.

Brain development 

Teenagers’ brains are still developing. Drinking alcohol while the brain is still developing can damage two key parts of the brain: the area responsible for logic, reasoning, self-regulation and judgement, and an area of the brain related to learning and memory.

This damage can then impact on a young person’s thinking, functioning and behaviour in the long term. 

 

Teens are generally more likely than adults to make impulsive, emotional decisions without thinking about the consequences – The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control don’t fully mature until we’re in our mid-20s. Alcohol increases the chance of risky behaviour, as it lowers inhibitions, increases impulsiveness and makes decision-making worse.

Read more:

Alcohol and the teenage brain.pdf (size 350.7 KB) - An article by Dr Helen McMonagle

Risk-taking and acting on impulse

The parts of the brain responsible for impulse control don’t fully mature until we’re about 25 years old. This means young people are more likely to experiment and take risks.

Alcohol can increase our tendency to take risks and act on impulse, without thinking about the consequences. It can also affect our judgement and our ability to spot danger or react to it.

Mixing a teenager’s natural lack of inhibition with the effects of alcohol can greatly increase the chances of a young person having an accident, being exploited, doing something they regret or hurting themselves or someone else.

Mental heath problems 

Alcohol is associated with a range of negative mental health conditions and symptoms in young people. A recent study in Ireland found that young people who drank heavily were far more likely to have more serious symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress.1

Increasing risk of dependence

There is increasing evidence that the earlier someone starts drinking the more likely they are to drink harmfully or develop a drug or alcohol problem later in life. 2 3

Ways to look after a young person’s mental health

If you care for a young person:

  • Stay close to them - know where they are, what they are doing and keep in touch with how they are feeling
  • Try to support them in finding healthy activities and ways to cope. Read some ideas about things that make mental health better
  • Make them aware of services that they can use if they are feeling low, such as Childline (freephone listening service), Spunout.ie (youth information and support website) and Reachout.com (mental health support)
  • Set a good example with alcohol – don’t give the message that alcohol is a good way to cope with difficulties and don’t allow them to drink

 

Visit our parents section for advice on supporting young people and protecting them from alcohol-related harm.

1 Dooley and Fitzgerald (2012) My World Survey. National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. Headstrong and UCD, Dublin
2 Grant and Dawson. Age at onset of drug use and its association with DSM–IV drug abuse and dependence: Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 10:163–173, 1998
3 Grunbaum, Kann, Kinchen et al. Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States, 2003. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summary, May 21;53:1–96, 2004. Erratum in MMWR, June 25; 53:536, 2004. Erratum in MMWR, June 24; 54:608, 2005

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