If you are still suffering the impact of one too many drinks over New Year, then you are not alone. A and E departments up and down the country will be counting the cost of excessive alcohol consumption too. Many forget it is the NHS that have been coping with much of the fallout from festive over-indulgence and the consequences of dangerous drinking.
The rise in emergency admissions for alcohol-related health issues is worrying. According to a recent report by the Nuffield Trust, the number of A and E visits has doubled in six years for alcohol poisoning, and there has also been a rise in people ending up in hospital for chronic issues such as liver disease.
This all adds to the burden faced by an already over-stretched health service. The London Ambulance Service even resorted to sending people who'd drunk too much to hospital in taxis or police vans over the festive season. This was in order to free up ambulances for emergencies, demonstrating how alcohol-related harm is a serious problem.
In my opinion, hospitals and the emergency services should not be left to tackle the consequences of excessive drinking except as a very last resort. I'm all in favour of initiatives such as Dry January, which encourage people to have an alcohol-free month and reconsider their relationship with drink, but encouraging abstention for a few weeks is not enough for long term change.
We need to go further if we are going to reverse the rising trend of alcohol-related A and E admissions and cut the £21 billion cost to society of harmful drinking. As well as more resources for community support, we need services that identify problem drinking at an earlier stage. We must also ensure the right education and support are there for individuals and families. That's why investment, rather than the proposed budget cuts, in social care and public health is vital.
Problem drinking is never just about alcohol. Drinking is often a crutch for other underlying factors. Mental health issues, low self-esteem and stress can drive people to consume alcohol to a harmful degree in the first place. People turn to alcohol to self-medicate against psychological distress or to lift a low mood, especially at this time of year. But the release it gives people is only temporary and can cause long-term physical harm, which is why it is crucial that there are support services available with specialist staff trained in helping people recover from addiction. These services should appeal to everyone because harmful drinking is an issue that can affect anyone in society regardless of social background.
Turning Point runs the Resolution Clinic in areas including London's Westminster, the Cotswolds and Medway, which is targeted at working professionals. Staff have already identified a significant un-met demand, for example, from women who binge drink to relieve job-related stress and wouldn't otherwise access support. The Resolution Clinic offers evening advice sessions for people who need support yet do not have time to attend sessions during the day, or who feel uncomfortable attending mainstream services. More services like these are needed.
Poverty is another major factor in alcohol dependency. What the Nuffield report highlights is that rates of emergency hospital admissions are highest in deprived areas of the country. This backs up studies that already show a strong association between poverty, social exclusion and alcohol misuse. Penalising those who are less well-off through welfare reforms could make those on the margins feel even more disengaged from the rest of society.
The more they become disengaged, the greater the risk they will seek escape from the impact of austerity through alcohol dependency and other forms of substance misuse. This has consequences for all of us, both in terms of a human cost and an economic one.
There are no quick fixes when it comes to recovery. It takes patience, commitment and dedicated support. The support exists but, to stop people ending up in hospital, we need the government to focus on prevention and early intervention. We can but hope that improving access to alcohol treatment is among the Prime Minister's New Year resolutions for 2016.