Children of heavy drinkers more likely to have mental health problems, display criminal behavior

PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Children of heavy drinkers are more likely to develop depression and other mental health problems, a new study warns. A team from Aarhus University in Denmark say these youngsters are also more likely to need hospitalization and exhibit criminal behavior later on.

“Within the last 10 years, there has been an expansion of research on consequences that extend beyond the drinker,” says co-author Dr. Julie Brummer in a media release.

“Although some studies show that harm because of strangers’ drinking may be more prevalent, harms caused by close relations, such as household family members and friends, may be more severe and distressing.”

‘Alcohol’s harms to others’ are numerous

Study authors discovered that a parent’s excessive drinking can lead to a range of poor outcomes in their children, which they call “alcohol’s harms to others” (AHTO). This phenomenon includes higher rates of mental health disorders, infant and child mortality, and criminal convictions.

The study finds academic achievements among these children are also lower, and rates of abuse, neglect, or foster care placement increase. The team report that there is an elevated risk for hospitalizations for physical illness and injury in childhood or adolescence, too.

The findings are based on a review of register based studies of hospital and other centralized records. The data provides the fullest picture to date of the harm a family member’s alcohol abuse can cause to their children.

Dr. Brummer adds their findings will enable officials to address the “more serious, persistent and rare outcomes” of alcohol consumption. The international team covered a wider range of issues and ages of children, from birth through adolescence, and beyond.

Protecting vulnerable people from alcohol-related abuses

Most previous research has relied on self-reports. However, researchers note adults may play down harms occurring to children in their own household. Dr. Brummer and colleagues pooled data from 91 articles, mainly using information from Nordic countries.

“Registers are able to easily link immediate family members and follow individuals over extended periods of time to study long-term outcomes,” the researcher explains. “Particularly in the Nordic region, there are register data across many domains, including physical and mental health — areas where we suspect we may see harms to family members.”

Dr. Anne-Marie Laslett, of the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research in Australia, who did not take part in the project, says the results could help protect vulnerable individuals.

“The article by Brummer and associates points toward a wider scope in which register data sets can contribute to documenting, investigating, and prevention planning for harms from others’ drinking,” Laslett concludes. “Mining them will improve our understanding of how AHTO [alcohol’s harms to others] can be reduced.”

The study appears in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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