Those with ‘probable’ mental health issues may also be at more than double the risk, the findings suggest.
The health and social costs of alcohol in the UK add up to £21 billion a year. And 1 in 5 of all those admitted to hospital in the UK is drinking at harmful levels, while 1 in 10 is alcohol dependent. The proportion of men and women who report drinking alcohol at least weekly has fallen sharply, but 28% of men and 14% of women still drink at potentially harmful levels, according to previous surveys.
High workload, job stress, and the use of alcohol to unwind after work are known risk factors, but it’s not clear if these might also apply to UK parliamentarians.
The team, led by researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) looked at the prevalence of risky drinking, defined as drinking at hazardous, harmful, or dependent levels, among UK MPs, with the aim of seeing if there might be any particular factors associated with this behaviour.
They invited all 650 MPs in the House of Commons to fill in an anonymous online survey in December 2016, using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). This aims to find out how much and how often respondents drink alcohol, and what happens afterwards in terms of feelings of guilt or remorse, injury, blackouts, for example.
Answers were each scored from 0 to 4 and added to give a maximum score of 40. A score above 8 indicates risky drinking.
Responses were compared with those of the nationally representative 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS), which provides data on the prevalence of treated and untreated mental health issues among English adults.
The GHQ-12, a validated health questionnaire, was used to assess the mental health of the responding MPs.
There’s no formal threshold for identifying mental ill health in this questionnaire, but responses were scored and categorised as: no evidence of probable mental ill health; less than optimal mental health; or probable psychological disturbance or mental ill health.
Some 146 MPs responded to the online survey (response rate of 22.5%). Nearly two thirds (63%) were men and around half (51%) were older than 50.
Most (81%) respondents didn’t work outside parliament and three quarters (77%) said they were unaware of the Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service.
This study was limited by a low response rate, but the findings of heavier and more frequent weekly drinking in MPs than in comparable groups raises more general concerns about attitudes towards drinking and the potential harm arising from risky drinking behaviour– Lead author Dr Tony Rao from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience IoPPN), King’s College London
The responses showed that the rate of risky drinking was higher than that of the general population in England, but comparable with that of people with similar income and job status in the APMS. MPs were also comparable to these groups in their reports of not being able to stop drinking once they started; failing to do what was normally expected because of drinking; and having no memory of the night before because of their drinking.
But, on average, compared with the general population, responding MPs were more likely to drink at least 4 times a week; to drink at least 10 units on a typical drinking day; to drink 6 or more units in any one session (binge drinking); and to say they felt guilty about their drinking.
MPs with additional roles outside parliament were nearly 3 times as likely to be risky drinkers while those with ‘probable’ mental illness were nearly 2.5 times as likely to do so. However, the overall numbers of those with extra roles or possible mental illness were relatively small, caution the researchers.
Dr Tony Rao from the IoPPN, King’s College London said: ‘This study was limited by a low response rate, but the findings of heavier and more frequent weekly drinking in MPs than in comparable groups raises more general concerns about attitudes towards drinking and the potential harm arising from risky drinking behaviour.
‘There was no evidence from the study to suggest that MPs are more likely to drink at levels that raise concerns about probable alcohol dependence. It was not possible to draw firm conclusions about possible causes and associations owing to small numbers, but the impact of probable mental ill health and working in roles outside parliament require further study.’
This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause, and the associations found are weakened by the small numbers of respondents.
Nevertheless, the researchers suggest that the low levels of participation may have been prompted by stigma or fear of being identified. And given the availability of alcohol in parliament in 30 bars, restaurants, and hospitality suites, with six bars open most evenings when MPs are voting or waiting to do so, the issue warrants further study, they add.
The researchers suggested that, given the considerable stigma associated with mental health problems, there is a need for MPs to be better informed about the wellbeing service, to reduce stigma and improve help seeking within Parliament.
Contributing author Dr Daniel Poulter MP said: ‘This study raises important questions about alcohol consumption in MPs and what support may be available to MPs who develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
‘Our findings also provide an opportunity to review working practices in parliament where, unlike almost every other U.K. workplace, MPs have easy access to alcohol during working hours.’
Since this research was carried out, two general elections have been held, changing the individuals in the House of Commons.
Based on a press release issued by the BMJ.
Reference: Rao, R et al. Alcohol consumption of UK members of parliament: cross-sectional survey British Medical Journal Open doi 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-034929