It will be interesting to see how the neo-prohibitionists spin this one. An article in Time magazine, entitled Why Nondrinkers May Be More Depressed, by John Cloud, details the findings of a recent study that suggests “those who never drink are at significantly higher risk for not only depression but also anxiety disorders, compared with those who consume alcohol regularly.”
That study, Anxiety and Depression Among Abstainers and Low-Level Alcohol Consumers, was published in the journal Addiction. According to the press release from the journal:
Abstaining from alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of depression according to a new study published in Addiction journal.
It has long been recognised that excessive alcohol consumption can lead to poor physical and mental health. However, there has been mounting evidence that low levels of alcohol consumption may also be associated with poor mental health possibly due to abstainers having other health problems or being reformed heavy drinkers.
The study utilized data from the Nord-Trøndelag Health Study (HUNT Study) based in Norway. This provided information on the drinking habits and mental health of over 38,000 individuals. Using this data the authors were able to show that those individuals who reported drinking no alcohol over a two week period were more likely than moderate drinkers to report symptoms of depression. Those individuals who additionally labeled themselves as “abstainers” were at the highest risk of depression. Other factors, such as age, physical health problems and number of close friends could explain some, but not all of this increased risk. The authors also had access to reported levels of alcohol consumption 11 years prior to the main survey. This showed that fourteen percent of current abstainers had previously been heavy drinkers, but this did not explain all of the increased risk of depression amongst abstainers.
The authors conclude that in societies where some use of alcohol is the norm, abstinence may be associated with being socially marginalized or particular personality traits that may also be associated with mental illness.
Though the authors of the study stop short of encouraging abstainers to start drinking, the Time magazine concludes with what any rational person reading this might think, which is “just say yes.”
The most powerful explanation seems to be that abstainers have fewer close friends than drinkers, even though they tend to participate more often in organized social activities. Abstainers seem to have a harder time making strong friendship bonds, perhaps because they don’t have alcohol to lubricate their social interactions. After all, it’s easier to reveal your worst fears and greatest hopes to a potential friend after a Negroni or two.
So does this mean we should all have a cocktail? Maybe, but Skogen says he doesn’t believe his study should encourage abstainers to become drinkers. Rather, he says doctors might want to investigate why abstaining patients don’t drink and explain that in societies where alcohol use is common, not drinking may lead them to feel left out. Sometimes, you should just say yes.
In addition to this study concerning mental health, several studies over the past decade or more have also concluded that the moderate consumption of alcohol leads to better physical health than for people who abstain from it. Better physical health and now better mental health, all from simply having a drink or two regularly. To me, that’s the pink elephant in the room.
The anti-alcohol groups seem so hell bent on their all or nothing approach, seeing any alcohol as bad and no alcohol as all good, when the reality is hardly that simple. As these studies suggest, the common ground should be a more reasonable approach that leads to more drinking in moderation, removing the conditions that lead to over-consumption through education, strengthening infrastructure for public transportation so people can go out for a drink without fear, and recognizing that drinking alcohol does have many positive attributes when consumed responsibly. I realize that seems like a Herculean task at this moment in time, but that’s the only way I can see moving past the entrenched positions of both sides.
Obviously, I’m on one side of the aisle and I honestly believe that no one involved with the alcohol industry thinks that over-consumption or any extremes in drinking are a good thing. Both camps seem to agree on that. But the people against alcohol seem incapable of giving up any ground to concede that for most people moderate drinking may not be the evil they believe or that it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to greater problems. That very unwillingness, I believe, is actually exacerbating the problems that some people do experience with drinking too heavily because their focus is on the wrong problem and paints all drinkers will the same broad brush. As science continues to confirm that alcohol has been, and still is, a part of a healthy lifestyle, that position will become harder and harder to defend.
Remember the definition of an abstainer by Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary:
Abstainer: n. a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.
I can’t quite get on board with the way the Times applied the conclusions from the study to the US. I’ve been to Scandinavia, and it really is the norm there to drink moderately in any social setting…my host family served me beer with dinner when I was just 19, and it was perfectly acceptable. So, abstinence being an indicator of social problems is a valid conclusion in that region.
Unfortunately, the US still suffers the ill effects of our puritanical foundation and everything is an extreme, all or nothing as you said. Moderation in all things just doesn’t seem to figure into most peoples minds, and accordingly, it isn’t the norm that there’s drinking in all social situations (most granted, but not all). So I don’t think that you can extend the Norway study conclusion to the US, and abstinence should not be taken as an indicator of a social problem.
So while, I’m COMPLETELY on board with drinking in moderation, especially in social situations, the way the Times characterized it is really off the wall. Abstainers can’t make good friends without a beer to loosen them up? Their phrasing just helps the neo-prohibitionist cause in my mind because it gives them a target to shoot back at.
I do think your conclusions are spot on. As a culture, we need to focus on moderation in all things, not just drinking. Too many of our ills as a country are a result of polarized thinking on any issue, with no middle ground for compromise and acceptance of opposing viewpoints.
michael reinhardt says
It’s really hard to imagine what some of these people are still fight for. What’s left? Maybe a society for the stuffy would be up their alley. They could have social interaction and bash beauty, beer, fatty foods and a gambit of other topics. Myopic lives!