Toby Williams: In 2022, we must overhaul the way we treat alcoholism

22 Dec

Toby Williams was the Conservative candidate for Mitcham and Morden at the last General Election and stood for the London Assembly as a city-wide candidate earlier this year. He volunteers for the National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

For many of us, an invaluable and irreplaceable component of Christmastime is drinking alcohol. It certainly is for me; in fact, this very piece comes off the back of an extremely enjoyable Christmas pint at my local village pub (the Bell in Feering, Essex – in case anyone is interested in paying this exceptional place a visit).

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Christmas is a time of relaxation and merriment at the end of a long, hard year – and alcohol can be a great catalyst for bringing people together and maximising Christmas cheer.

But for those people who are sadly addicts, Christmas can be the most dangerous time of year, with the sheer availability and abundance of alcohol only ratcheting up the dependency that consumes them. The loneliness and poor mental health that so often accompany alcoholism can intensify too, as in the mind of the addict these problems contrast strongly with the warm, happy togetherness of the festive season.

Needless to say, this vicious cycle too often leads to one place: the bottle.

Christmas 2021 comes after two particularly tragic years for alcoholics. A perverse by-product of the coronavirus pandemic has seen a surge in alcohol abuse, with deaths from alcohol-specific causes rocketing from 7,565 in 2019 to 8,874 in 2020 – a staggering increase of nearly 20 percent.

This is hardly surprising; as pubs closed, people resorted to drinking cheaper and stronger alcohol at home. Off-licence sales of beer jumped by 31 percent and spirits by 26 percent during that year alone.

Far too often, the fact that alcoholism affects not just the addict themselves but also the people around them is tragically overlooked. Growing up as a child of an alcoholic, I know all too well that the extent of a parent’s drink problem has a directly proportionate impact on the wellbeing of the child. The worse my Mum’s drinking got, the more acute my shame, embarrassment and insecurity would become.

Considering this, it is no surprise that children of alcoholics are twice as likely to suffer educational disadvantage, three times more likely to consider suicide and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.

So this Christmas, it’s especially important to remember the catastrophic impact that alcoholism has on the individual, those around them and wider society. As we look forward to 2022, we must consider the ways we can stem the tide of alcohol abuse that has engulfed this country particularly over the past two years.

To paraphrase a former Prime Minister, we need to get tough on alcoholism and tough on the causes of alcoholism.

We must move away from any notion that alcoholism is solely – or even mostly – a physical problem. Of course, the terrible physical effects of excessive drinking, from high blood pressure to liver cancer, mustn’t be played down; but these are almost always symptoms of deep-seated mental health problems.

This means that the way the NHS treats severe alcoholism needs to stretch further than an insufficient combination of the treatment of physical illnesses and gentle advice around cutting down. Alcoholism needs to be met with a far more robust mental health response to really target the source of the problem.

Alongside the far more effective integration of physical and mental health treatment, it is vital for our social care sector to play a more active role in combatting the scourge of alcoholism. Over the past two and a half years, my Mum has been in and out of hospital four times as a result of drinking herself into an oblivion. The sheer level of self-neglect was not just at stratospheric levels, but also blindingly obvious for anyone to see.

Yet it wasn’t until her fourth hospitalisation that social services became involved in earnest and decided that they needed to intervene.

This belated, lacklustre and disjointed approach (which, I hasten to add, is not the fault of the brilliant social and care workers across the country) is terrible for the health and wellbeing of the addict and places an avoidable and immense strain on the NHS. Had social services been involved from the off, I have no doubt that my Mum could have avoided multiple hospital visits. Instead, she was lucky to survive.

Alongside strengthening the way we treat the symptoms of alcoholism, we also need to tackle the root causes far more effectively. While there simply isn’t the space here to analyse the myriad of causes behind addiction, I want to highlight what is so often the prevailing factor: loneliness.

Loneliness and heavy drinking all too often go hand-in-hand, creating a vicious cycle of spiralling alcohol consumption and isolation. Organisations such as the Jo Cox Foundation and the APPG on Loneliness have done some fabulous work around raising awareness of this issue and highlighting the importance of shaping huge swathes of government policy around the need to tackle the problem.

From closing the digital divide to loneliness-proofing public transport and housing, 2022 needs to be the year that we focus relentlessly on developing the intelligent policies that tackle high levels of social seclusion. This is of course particularly important in the aftermath of the successive lockdowns, which while necessary have by their very nature increased levels of loneliness.

Next year, we all hope, will be the year we recover from the extraordinarily difficult Covid years. It is vital that this recovery programme includes tangible and robust measures to slow the rate of addiction growth and enhance the ways in which we treat alcoholism.

Doing so wouldn’t just transform the lives of people who have fallen prey to alcohol abuse and those close to them; it would strengthen our brilliant health service and bring about the type of far-reaching social reform that any Conservative would be proud of.

Toby Williams: Lockdown has presented huge challenges for the children of alcoholics. Here’s how we can help.

21 Oct

Toby Williams was the Conservative candidate for Mitcham and Morden at the last General Election. He is standing for the London Assembly next year as a city-wide candidate. 

As difficult, painful and tragic as the Coronavirus pandemic has been, it has also brought out the very best in human nature. It has been extraordinary to see people go to great lengths to help loved ones and absolute strangers alike, with communities pulling together, individuals volunteering their precious time to help others and our heroic key workers putting themselves in harms way to keep the country going.

In many ways, we are coming out of the pandemic as even more of a compassionate, big-hearted, and socially conscious country. This puts us in the right position to deal with some of the pressing social problems facing our country – especially those which have been made more acute by the lockdown.

In particular, I hope that we, as a society, are able to turn some of our attention to the plight of the children of alcoholics (COA).

I have been a COA for the vast majority of my life and, despite now living 150 miles away from home, Coronavirus has made an already difficult situation even more challenging. But I shudder to think of fellow COAs who have had to go through the experience of lockdown while still living with their addicted parent. I have no doubt that my experience pales into insignificance compared to theirs.

So many of these children (and most of them will be children) will have been caught up in a perfect storm. As I have seen from the last few months, lockdown has tragically created the circumstances which has allowed alcoholism to thrive. For so many of us, the pandemic has created more space in our lives, and alcoholics tend to fill any vacant space with more alcohol.

Whilst alcohol consumption may have increased, a child’s ability to take some respite from their parent will have all but disappeared, with schools closed and friends out of reach. This will have resulted in a far more intense experience of being a COA, leading to a crippling lack of security at best and abuse at worst.

It’s no surprise whatsoever that the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) – a brilliant charity which runs a helpline for COAs – reported a doubling of calls in the first two weeks of lockdown alone. The COAs who contacted Nacoa were distressed by the lack of routine and alarmed by the intensity of lockdown. COAs described lockdown as “unbearable” and “unmanageable” due to a combination of parents drinking increasing amounts and the usual escape mechanisms simply not being available.

My concern is that all of this represents a shift rather than a spike. Alcoholism is all too often a one-way street, with alcoholics unable to shift into reverse gear and un-do the damage. That is why now is precisely the right time to look at what more we can do protect and support COAs.

This isn’t just important to mitigate the pain caused in the short term, it’s also key to preventing serious problems in the long term. Figures from 2017 show that, compared to other children, COAs are twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, three times more likely to consider suicide, five times more likely to develop eating disorders and four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. By dealing with the difficulties faced by COAs, we can boost social justice, improve our education system, and help to prevent health problems which would otherwise cost the NHS millions.

As Conservatives, we can be immensely proud of our record in government when it comes to COAs. It was, after all, a Conservative government which, in 2018, launched the UK’s first ever strategy to help children affected by parental alcohol misuse, which included £6 million worth of funding to help children with alcoholic parents get support and advice. Importantly, half a million pounds was invested in Nacoa’s helpline – a genuine lifeline and often last resort for so many COAs.

But it’s time to build on this fantastic work, with a key focus on three areas as a “starter for 10”:

1) Boosting awareness for children

Something which is overlooked is that children so often do not understand what alcohol is, let alone alcoholism; my eight-year-old self certainly didn’t. This creates an obvious dilemma: how can COAs ask for help with a problem that they don’t understand or even know exists? It’s time for a review of how the issue of parental alcoholism is approached in schools, and whether this could be done more effectively.

2) Boosting awareness for adults who work with children

It remains the case that the way in which the state deals with alcoholics is very focussed on the alcoholics themselves. For example, doctors rightly focus on getting an alcoholic help, but too little attention is paid to the needs to any children involved.

Teachers are encouraged to spot the signs of all kinds of child abuse, but there is a lack of awareness of the support available to COAs. It would be enormously beneficial to provide new guidance and training to these professionals to enable them to have COAs in the forefront of their minds and know where to turn to get these children support.

3) Getting the funding right

Spending is only part of the answer to big social problems like addiction, but now is a sensible time to review what the Government is spending on helping COAs. As touched on above, in 2018 £6 million was invested in supporting COAs, but this money is set to run out next year.

As we deal with the myriad of challenges inevitably caused by a pandemic, it is essential that the often silent voices of COAs are not allowed to simply fade into the background. With thousands of COAs having just gone through an incredibly difficult period, now is the right time to build on the proud Conservative track record of delivering the support that they need and deserve.

In doing so, we will help to ease the pain of the present and avoid the problems of the future. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.