For many young men, booze and drugs are a way out of fully confronting mental health issues. We spoke to a couple guys who decided to put down the pints to see what effect it's had.
Photo: Michael Segalov
Theresa May, Donald Trump, Brexit, an uptick of racism and hate crimes, rising inflation, and increasing property prices. A lot has happened this year that you probably want to forget about, and the traditional way to forget—of course—is to drown your memory in booze, and stifle any remaining thoughts with one or more of your favorite drugs.
But as you might have already surmised, that's not always the best course of action. Dr. Sheri Jacobson, clinical director of Harley Therapy, points out that both drugs and alcohol actually provide a temporary high that, over a long-term basis, keeps the user in a cycle of low moods.
"Alcohol, for example, is a depressant, and it actually messes with the neurotransmitters in your brain, including the one needed to help you keep anxiety at bay," she says. So while drinking is often thought of as a way to "wind down" after a demanding day, in fact it can have quite the opposite effect.
"If you already had any kind of mental health issue, like anxiety or bipolar disorder, substances are likely to make your condition worse, not better," says Dr. Jacobson. "And if you have a genetic risk for a mental disorder, drug or alcohol use gives you a higher chance of developing it."
Drug and alcohol misuse is particularly prevalent in men. In 2014, men accounted for approximately 65 percent of all alcohol-related deaths in the UK, and in 2014–2015, 74 percent of hospital admissions with a primary diagnosis of drug-related mental and behavioral disorders were men. Depression and anxiety are common in individuals with a history of substance abuse, and the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry suggests that one in three adults who abuses drugs or alcohol is also affected by depression.
Male mental health might be more talked about than ever in the media, but last month the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness released a study from their campaign Time to Change showing that 54 percent of male teenagers suffering from mental health issues chose to keep their problems to themselves. Despite more and more celebrities outing themselves as sufferers of depression and anxiety, and media-run campaigns encouraging men to talk about what's troubling them, many are still keeping things to themselves.
There are, of course, many reasons why that might be. But I'm personally aware of a number of men whose mental health problems have been clouded by pints, drugs, hangovers, and comedowns. Men who haven't been able to address their issues until a period of sobriety-enforced mental clarity. And—anecdotally, at least—I'm aware of this problem stretching beyond my own personal social circle.
Bob Foster, 33, has now been sober for 17 months. Until he took the plunge his typical week "would start off with me feeling very depressed and scared to get out of bed on Monday. I'd have a terrible day dodging emails and being monosyllabic in meetings, then I'd go to the gym in the evening and start feeling just about alright thanks to all those lovely endorphins going to the gym gives you. I'd feel marginally better on Tuesday, hit the gym again, feel almost OK on Wednesday, hit the gym again that evening, and then spend all of Thursday waiting until the end of the day to get to the pub. Then I'd stay out until maybe 1 AM or 2 AM, drink and do a load of coke, feel like death at work on Friday and then start drinking immediately after work to stave off the misery, do more coke, stay out till 7 AM, sleep all day, then possibly do it again Saturday, but if not just shut myself in my room all of Saturday night and Sunday."
In a routine where drinking and taking drugs marked the separation between the mundane week and the release of the weekend, Bob's mental health began to suffer. "I spent my 20s upping the doses of various antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, wondering why they never worked," he says. "It never occurred to me that drinking a depressant and snorting stuff that made you paranoid might make me depressed and paranoid."
So how and why did he stop? "It wasn't a single eureka moment; it was cumulative," Bob tells me. "I'd given up for months at a time a few times in my 20s, and I knew that it would make me feel better. I could see a lot of people in my life progressing—getting married and having kids—and I felt like I was still on the bottom rung of life. I actually planned a 'last hurrah': a metal festival in the Midlands that I went to write about for work. I took six grams of cocaine with me and got a load of MDMA there—really went for it. My plan was to create a comedown so bad that I'd never want to take drugs again. I succeeded!"
That crashing comedown was the shove he needed, and after that "it was a total and absolute turnaround in a matter of months."
For London-based yoga teacher and former DJ Marcus Veda, the shift from going to bed at dawn to eventually getting up at the same time was less abrupt. "For ten years, I was getting smashed—doing everything and drinking everything, taking everything. It was pure hedonism," he explains.
Like Bob's, Marcus's party lifestyle worked in cycles, muted by the awareness that being healthy was important, too. "When we went on tour, it would be big weekends and then I was always doing the healthy, good stuff in between. I loved sports, gym, and martial arts, so I could always see the good; I just thought that they could coexist. Which they could, for a while, until I realized I could just get my highs from yoga and from martial arts."
After practicing martial arts for five or so years and slowly becoming more interested in yoga, Marcus began to reevaluate his lifestyle. "I was questioning toward the end of the drinking, 'Is this really worth it? Is this even fun?' The next day, the hangover would ruin the day, and there was never enough time to do anything I wanted to do, and taking off a day every time that happened meant that I was only living half the week. I ended up thinking it wasn't worth it."
During his decade DJing and performing in clubs around the world, Marcus did not experience the kind of depression and anxiety that Bob suffered. Still, he tells me that now his everyday perception of life is very different: "I became much more even. Living for the weekend, like so many people are doing, you're almost on autopilot robot through the week. Now, every day is just the same. I never get down, I don't dread Mondays any more, I don't dread coming down—not necessarily drugs wise, just coming back to the mundane."
For Bob, the change he has seen in his quality of life since going sober is huge.
"For a start I look five years younger than I did, and I lost two stone [28 pounds] in the first three months," he says. "The other thing that was almost immediate was my brain function: I swear I'm 50 percent mentally quicker and smarter than I was. I grew up a lot really quickly, too: I wasn't just following my friends to the pub to the detriment of all else; I got more organized, I stopped living essentially like a teenager—no more messy room, no more late for everything. I built a better relationship with my family, I started making progress at work, all those sorts of things. I felt more energetic, I had more money, I got fit, I got happier, I felt at peace for the first time in my adult life."
Of course, giving up drinking or drugs in a culture that revolves around both isn't simple, and there's no guarantee it will have the same kind of benefit to your mental health as it did for Bob.
Addiction, or habits, can be hard to break, as anyone who has ever attempted Dry January will tell you. Luckily, most addictive behaviors come with their own support group, from AA to NA. But as Dr. Sherri advises, "If you find groups intimidating, don't overlook professional one-on-one support. An addictions counselor can offer you unbiased support in an environment you can truly be uncensored in—[which is] not always what we get from friends and family, no matter how well-meaning they may be."
"Stop for three months and see how you feel," says Bob when I ask him what advice he would give to men living out their twenties the way he had. "Three months is the point where you can really see how different stuff has become. It's also the hardest point to get to, because you're still super fresh, but I absolutely swear when you get to three months you'll see what all the fuss is about."
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness for help.
Follow Bryony Stone on Twitter.