Drunk tanks – a symptom of mental health cuts

Queen Elizabeth University Hospital

Credit: Wikimedia Commons / George Allison

Noor Yasin Sabha
Writer

Given that the numbers of dangerously drunk people increased mainly because of faults in mental health services, the NHS and government cannot be complaining about drunk people coming into A&E.

In December of 2017, the NHS began considering the expansion of drunk tanks – mobile units equipped with a range of drips, beds and showers – across UK cities. These “drunk tanks” serve to maintain the safety of those who are dangerously drunk without overcrowding A&E or increasing wait times for other patients. However, the fact that more drunk tanks are needed proves that the NHS is neglecting the existence of a wider predicament that is begging to be addressed: university drinking culture and the rising numbers of mental health issues.

Alcohol Concern UK found that 12-15% of patients attending A&E departments in the UK are suffering from alcohol intoxication, and The Herald has found that the excessive use of cocaine, ecstasy and alcohol is putting extreme pressure on Scottish A&E departments. The former percentage peaks over the weekend to 70%. Alcohol misuse has also been listed as the most prominent risk factor for illness and death for people between 15-49 years old, with 595,131 of people in England considered alcohol-dependent and only 10,696 receiving treatment. Such high numbers indicate that it’s inevitable for any A&E department to get in contact with at least one dangerously drunk person per night.

Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England, recently addressed the problem, declaring: “NHS doesn’t stand for ‘National Hangover Service’.” While this is true, it does not mean that those who are dangerously drunk are not equally deserving of the medical attention that is due to any vulnerable person. Instead, the fact that they chose to get themselves to such a point indicates that they are in serious need of medical attention and a compassionate ear.

Spreading drunk tanks across the UK can thus be viewed as a form of discrimination against addiction, as it sends the message that unless you are suffering from a specific, extreme form of illness, then your presence at A&E isn’t wanted. To avoid that, the UK should first and foremost consider mending their university drinking culture and work on decreasing the waiting time for accessing mental health support. The numbers of those who allow themselves to get dangerously drunk would then decrease and the question at hand won’t be whether drunk tanks should be spread across the UK, but rather if drunk tanks should exist in the first place.

As for mental health disorders, when those affected are not receiving the help that they need, they start to self medicate to feel better. Using alcohol, or indeed other drugs, can provide the user with a temporary and unhealthy solution to a seemingly endless waitlist to speak to a mental health professional.

Given that the numbers of dangerously drunk people increased mainly because of faults in mental health services, the NHS and government cannot be complaining about drunk people coming into A&E. In fact, so long as barely any effort is put in to solve either of those two problems, A&E remains responsible for offering all those in need of medical support equal time and attention.

By spreading drunk tanks, what the NHS is doing is applying a band aid on a wound that will keep bleeding until it is noticed and stitched. Until then, it remains their responsibility to offer all those in dangerous situations the medical attention and care that they require.