Self-harm over public holidays linked to alcohol, research finds

Industry campaigns on safe drinking deliberately ineffective, says child psychiatrist

Prof Ella Arensman of  the National Suicide Research Foundation said that consistently over the past five years, there had been peaks in the number of people at emergency departments having self-harmed after consuming alcohol over public holidays. Photograph: David Sleator

Prof Ella Arensman of the National Suicide Research Foundation said that consistently over the past five years, there had been peaks in the number of people at emergency departments having self-harmed after consuming alcohol over public holidays. Photograph: David Sleator

Thu, Nov 21, 2013, 01:00

The peak times for people turning up in hospital emergency departments suffering from self- harm after drinking large volumes of alcohol tend to be linked to public holidays, according to research by the National Suicide Research Foundation.

Prof Ella Arensman, director of research with the foundation, said that consistently over the past five years, there had been peaks in the number of people at emergency departments having self-harmed after consuming alcohol on January 1st, March 17th and 18th, the June bank holiday Monday and October 1st. They showed self- harming after drinking alcohol was “very strongly associated with public holidays”.

She presented the findings at a conference in Dublin yesterday hosted by Alcohol Action Ireland on the impact of alcohol on mental health.

The research is conducted by the foundation in collaboration with University College Cork and draws on data collected at every emergency department between 2002 and 2012. It covers more than 100,000 presentations for self-harm and the findings therefore are “very, very robust”, according to Prof Arensman.


Depressive effect
She said the average number of self-harm presentations across the State a day was 33, but this rose to 50 or more on the dates she had highlighted. “Alcohol abuse is one of the factors contributing to high rates of self- harm among young people and adults,” she said. This was the “direct effect of the depressive effect of heavy drinking”.

She said a pattern of hospital attendances was repeated over the seven-day week, where the peaks occurred from early Sunday morning into Tuesday.

“This is consistent week in, week out,” Prof Arensman said. “It is also striking that women are presenting with self-harm after heavy alcohol consumption in the same numbers as men, which is a new trend over the past five years.

“We have discovered a significant association between heavy drinking – which we define in adolescents as being seriously drunk five times in the past year – and self-harm. Most significantly, we find that if we could end heavy drinking among adolescents and young people, we could reduce self-harm by 17 per cent in two to three years.”


‘Responsible drinking’
Also at the conference, a leading consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist criticised so- called responsible drinking campaigns from the drinks industry, saying they were “cleverly worded in such a way as to ensure there was no change”.

Dr Bobby Smyth said campaigns such as drinkaware.ie and those run by the drinks industry-funded education body Meas used “moral” language that was guaranteed to bring about no change in people’s drinking habits.

“It’s important to them to use moral language like ‘drink sensibly’ and ‘drink responsibly’ to ensure behaviour doesn’t change. Because of course the opposite would be drinking ‘irresponsibly’ or ‘stupidly’ and no one is going to view their drinking as stupid.

“Those messages make people who drink in a harmful manner regard their drinking as sensible enough and moderate enough and so feel better about their harmful drinking.

“These campaigns are very clever and create the illusion that the drinks industry is interested in engaging with the public health issues. All they are interested in is serving shareholders’ interests and being viewed by the public as benign.”