Like lots of people, I drank too much at the beginning of lockdown last year, but since then, I’ve really been cutting back. But in the pub with my mates last week, I noticed how much everyone else was knocking it back. Has there always been an issue with men drinking so much booze? Or have I just never noticed it before? It’s really shocked me. Pete
When everyone around you drinks as you do, it’s hard to see clearly that you’re part of a drinking culture. So your pandemic perspective is valuable. Uncomfortable as it is to notice how much your friends drink – and maybe how much you used to – it’s an insight you need to hold on to.
The fact that men drink is taken for granted in our society. Drinking to excess, even causing yourself damage in the process, is seen by some men as a source of pride. But men experience disproportionate harm from alcohol, accounting for around two-thirds of hospitality admissions and alcohol-related deaths. These problems aren’t ones we can afford to ignore.
What is it with men drinking?
There’s surprisingly little research into the specific reasons that men, and especially cisgender straight men, drink. But Men and Alcohol, a report produced last year by Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP), gives us some clues.
Firstly, alcohol can be foundational for men’s identity. It’s not just that some men identify themselves as real ale drinkers, whisky connoisseurs or fine wine buffs. For many, drinking is a rite of passage into adulthood. Masculinity and drinking become synonymous, a worldview reflected in the advertising of many different types of alcohol.
Drinking becomes a part of male bonding, too, with many friendships formed over beers in a pub. Group activities for men, like sports teams, outdoor clubs and even male voice choirs, often have social lives that revolve around drinking together. In many ways, this is just a reflection of a wide societal attitude to alcohol, and many women and non-binary folk will drink in the same ways. But men who emerge from problems with alcohol often reflect that their friendships centred on drinking together. Too often, the response to problem sharing among men isn’t “how are you feeling?” but “what are you having?”
This embedding of drinking in men’s emotional lives also affects mental health. Research shows that men and women experience mental health problems at roughly the same rate. But men are more likely to cover up their symptoms and more reluctant to ask for help. They are also less likely to have emotionally supportive relationships. Drinking to cope with emotions like anger is common enough. But in a drinking culture that discourages vulnerability, men can find themselves increasingly isolated, reliant on drinking to resolve difficult feelings even as they are surrounded by drinkers just like them.
Too often, the response to problem sharing among men isn’t “how are you feeling?” but “what are you having?”
Of course, men drinking includes more than people who are straight and cisgender. A few weeks ago, I wrote about gay drinking culture; some researchers have pointed out how similar gay, bisexual and straight men’s drinking is, with many of the characteristics of drinking behaviour shared in common. To date, there is little research into the drinking experiences of trans men.
A five-point wellbeing check
All of this paints a fairly bleak picture of masculinity caught in an alcohol crisis. And while this is undoubtedly true for some, many men will drink relatively unproblematically. But nobody has to be at rock bottom before they change; every man can fine-tune his drinking to make it work for him.
So it’s important to give yourself a drinking check-up now and again. Drinking is related to many physical and mental health problems that affect men, from heart disease to prostate cancer. During this Men’s Health Week, take some time to notice the role that alcohol plays in your life. And if something isn’t working, fix it.
The theme of this year’s Men’s Health Week is the CAN DO challenge, with a different activity every day to boost your mental wellbeing. But you can also use CAN DO as a toolkit of questions to reflect on your drinking habits:
- Connect. Is alcohol an important part of your relationships? Are there friends you couldn’t imagine talking to without drinking? How can you build deeper connections?
- Be Active. How is alcohol affecting your physical health? Are you achieving your health goals? How can you drink less and move more?
- Notice. Are you drinking to avoid facing up to problems? What do you notice about your drinking habits? And what do you notice when you’re not drinking?
- Discover. Are you stuck in routine drinking? Or are you trying new things, including alcohol-free activities? What’s next for you?
- Offer. Does alcohol stop you from being your best self? What can you contribute to the world around you? How can you support other people to live well?
Take some time to notice the role that alcohol plays in your life. And if something isn’t working, fix it.
If you spot something that needs to change, take action. Change doesn’t have to mean quitting drinking altogether; most people can successfully cut back and moderate their drinking. And Club Soda can help, whether you want to learn how to stop drinking or how to drink mindfully. Fine-tuning your approach to drinking over time can make a big difference to your long-term health and wellbeing.