Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

If you aren’t Irish, no need to worry. By tradition, everyone’s a little bit Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!

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While it’s the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade I’m most familiar with, waltzing up Fifth Avenue is just one of the global celebrations of this beloved Irish Saint.   

1. The History of St. Patrick’s Day. Saint Patrick lived in Ireland more than 2,000 years ago. He is widely credited with establishing Christianity in a previously pagan society. In return, in the 17th century, the Church established the holy day of March 17th, which is the date of Saint Patrick’s death. St. Patrick’s Day started out as a religious holiday calling for church attendance. In fact, most businesses that served alcohol closed in honor of the day (similar to ongoing practices in many Christian countries today of closing liquor stores and bars on Sundays). It is not clear exactly how or when, but in the US, this staid, religious holiday morphed into a raucous alcohol-fueled celebration. Many other countries have since followed suit in adopting a more revelry version of the holiday.  

2. Do the Irish really drink more? The stereotypes of the Irish overindulging in drink has long fueled the assumption that rates of alcoholism must be higher among the Irish. Is it true? Yes and no. Certainly, Ireland has a widespread pub culture, and it is the birthplace of the now world–famous Guinness. However, in terms of overall rates of alcohol use disorders, Ireland doesn’t top the list. The 2014-2020 Health Research Board Report reports a prevalence of 8.5% in Ireland vs. 8.8% in the WHO European region. In 2016, Ireland reported an alcohol dependence rate of 3.8% as compared to the WHO European region’s rate of 3.7%. Another report from the WHO is more troubling. The global status report on alcohol and health found that 39% of all Irish people aged 15 and over had engaged in binge drinking (defined as a minimum of six standard drinks (60g of alcohol) on one drinking occasion) in the last month. By comparison, the rate in England was 28% and Austria was 40.5%.

3. Alcohol & Youth. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the targeting of teen girls by beverage companies in the US to increase alcohol consumption. According to the 2015 WHO Fact Sheet on Adolescent Health, harmful drinking during adolescence is a growing concern in many countries. In low- and middle-income countries 14% of adolescent girls and 18% of boys between ages 13-15 report consuming alcohol. Because the adolescent brain is still maturing, alcohol affects adults and adolescents differently. In general, adolescents can consume much larger quantities of alcohol before experiencing its negative consequences, including drowsiness, lack of coordination, and withdrawal/hangover effects. Adolescents also report experiencing more positive effects of drinking than adults do, like feeling more at ease in social situations.. This seductive combination conspires to make alcohol a leading cause of death and injury among young people worldwide, accounting for 5% of all deaths of people between the ages of 15 and 29.

4. Sober St. Patrick’s Day.  Huh? Yes, indeed. Sober St. Patrick’s Day is a relatively new tradition launched as part of New York’s festivities. It is a multi-faceted, alcohol-free festival that “reclaims the day” with Irish music, dance, storytelling, and literature. For the second time, Sober St. Patrick’s Day celebrants joined the historic NYC parade along Fifth Avenue under the Sober St. Patrick’s Day banner this year. By all measures, this new addition to the NYC parade harkens back to the holiday’s roots.

5. Emerald Spirit Award. Presented on St. Patrick’s Day at the NYC Sober St. Patrick’s Day party, the Emerald Spirit Award is presented annually to honor a professional who is devoted to improving the lives of individuals with alcoholism and their families. This year’s award recipient is  former Congressman, founder of The Kennedy Forum, and tireless advocate for mental health and substance use, Patrick J. Kennedy. Kennedy championed the landmark US Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act (Federal Parity Law), which requires insurers to cover treatment for mental health and substance use disorders no more restrictively than treatment for other illnesses. In his book, A Common Struggle, Kennedy shares his struggles and those of other family members with mental health and addiction. He knows firsthand how essential parity is to improving access and quality of care for people struggling with mental health and substance use problems. He also recognizes that his – and our – work is far from done – in the US and around the world.

Congratulations to Patrick J. Kennedy on receiving the Emerald Spirit Award and for his tireless efforts to achieve parity for mental health and addiction. And a toast to the luck of the Irish this St. Patrick’s Day, no matter what fills your glass.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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