Why York’s pubs are just the tonic for our mental health

They had just been on a bike ride
19 May 2019 @ 4.50 pm
| Food & drink, Health

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, Nick Love reveals the vital role our pubs play in our wellbeing

Mental Health Awareness Week brings a welcome annual spotlight to a subject that for many years was a taboo.

Time was when people referred to psychological disorders in derogatory terms. When I was growing up “nut house” and “funny farm” were regular phrases I heard expressed of where you’d end up if it got bad enough. Depression and anxiety were seen as signs of weakness.

Thankfully the stigma around mental health has vastly reduced over the last few years as more of us feel able to talk openly and frankly about our experiences.

In plain terms, one in four people in the UK will experience mental health problems each year which has wide reaching consequences not just to specific individuals, but society and the UK as a whole. The OECD reports that treatment, social support costs and the economic loss to the economy from people unable to work, costs the UK more than £94 billion every year.

In the same week, a major new global study into alcohol use has provided some handy tabloid headlines for the UK redtops. “Brits are biggest boozers” was a concise summary of a selection of statistics that showed that on average UK citizens get drunk 51 times per year: more than any other country in the world.

That only 20% regretted doing so was more telling as to our attitude to the demon drink.

Alleviating loneliness

Landlord John Pybus and friends in the Blue Bell, Fossgate
Coming as it did during Mental Health Awareness Week, you might expect a treatise on the harmful effects of drinking exacerbating depression and anxiety. To vilify alcohol out of hand is to apply too simplistic an approach to a complex subject.

As well as how much we drink, where we drink and what effect our surroundings have on consumption is key. Are there worse places to drink for instance and for what reasons?

Pubs for instance may be expected to be in the crosshairs, given they facilitate drinking, but you’d be surprised to learn that the opposite is true.

There’s a significant body of research, most recently added to by Professor Robin Dunbar in a report for CAMRA called Friends on Tap, that provides compelling evidence that pubs play a vital role in improving our mental wellbeing and also alleviating loneliness and social isolation – which are inextricably linked to poor mental health and disease.

A study by The Co-op and the British Red Cross revealed over 9 million people in the UK across all adult ages are either always or often lonely.

The key to pubs’ part in combatting mental illness and loneliness is their role as a communal meeting place. They are what’s known as a “third place” – a public venue that is not work and not home: where people can easily meet, relax and socialise. When people get together and interact with others they foster friendships and increase the size of their social network.

Professor Dunbar sums it up:

  • There has been a growing recognition over the past decade that the single most important factor determining health, wellbeing and survival is the size and quality of our personal social networks.

    The more people you know, and the more often you see them, the better you feel and the healthier you are.

Safe and convivial

Good cheer and good beer… Photograph: Elevate on Unsplash
Pubs, especially community ones, have all the right ingredients for socialising. They provide a safe convivial environment that fosters interaction between friends and brings together a diverse mix of people who often end up conversing with people they’ve never met before.

Although we tend to gravitate towards people who have similar opinions as ourselves, strangers are invaluable in that they don’t reinforce existing beliefs but expand our knowledge and widen our acceptance of contrary opinions and other facts we weren’t aware of.

Most vitally, pubs provide a lifeline for people who experience loneliness and social isolation. I can vividly remember striking up a casual conversation with an older gent who was perched on a stool in a corner of a bar in York.

He thanked me with a heartfelt handshake when I left and when I asked why he told me that I was the first person to speak with him for three days. Imagine that.

Another popular pub in York told me that they regularly get a lovely lady in during the day for coffee. She lost her husband and comes in with friends or on her own and brings in home baked treats for the bar staff.

A pub that we saved in 2015 from being turned into a convenience store in York is an invaluable community asset. One gent approached me and said the pub saved his life during his despair at the loss of his wife of many years.

A local mental health facility called me and offered support and a letter of endorsement in which they said that the pub was used to rehabilitate their residents back into the community.

Social engagement

The Evil Eye bar on Stonegate. Photograph: YorkMix
One city centre York pub currently runs a wonderful scheme where they host a golden years club and lay on food drinks and games on a weekly afternoon for those in need of company and enjoyment. More pubs should consider doing this.

In rural areas around York, pubs are even more vital to local communities lacking urban amenities we take for granted. York CAMRA member Professor Ignazio Cabras, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Regional Economic Development at Northumbria University, describes key findings of his major study into the impact of pubs on rural communities:

  • Overall, we found that pubs had a positive, statistically significant impact on social engagement and involvement among residents living in the English countryside.

    Simply speaking, opportunities for communal initiatives would be vastly reduced, if not non-existent, without the presence of pubs.

Alcohol has its part to play in fostering general bonhomie in pubs, in that moderate consumption reduces inhibitions and enables socialising and people’s ability to talk more openly about subjects they may usually refrain from, which includes mental health.

A Medical Research Council (MRC) study focused on men aged 30-50 who drank in groups in the pub. Researcher Dr Carol Emslie explains the results:

  • The most surprising thing was the way drinking opened up a space for men to behave in alternative ways that aren’t so associated with masculinity.

    There was the idea if you’ve had a few drinks it really helps you to express emotion in a way you might not in your everyday life. I did not ask about mental health. This they raised themselves.

Positive influence

Pubs also have a positive influence on how much we drink in that we drink less as part of a small group of friends than if we were to drink on our own at home. It’s only when we get together as part of a large group or drink in a big pub or club where maximum alcohol consumption is encouraged that we go off the rails.

The effect of moderate alcohol consumption in fostering social interaction and in turn happiness and friendship more than offsets the negative effects of mental ill health and loneliness or social isolation.

There is a positive effect on saving the NHS money in treatment, if you consider the fact that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% and is as bad statistically as smoking 15 cigarettes per day!

Versatility wise, pubs have few equals in what they can offer in terms of community social engagement. They’re widely available at least 12 hours per day to drop in on a whim or for a pre-arranged get together. They offer alcohol, soft drinks; hot drinks; assorted meals and snacks.

They have meeting rooms; they’re a live gig venue and host sporting matches as well as sponsoring their own local football teams; they host community groups, educational training courses and informative talks.

They’re a gig venue and a sporting arena. They’re the local shop and in some cases post office. They support charities to the tune of over £100 million per annum.

They host wedding receptions and funeral wakes. They showcase local artists and sell local produce. Each pub supports local business ecosystems to the tune of over £100,000 per annum. In short, they’re the nearest thing to a community panacea you’ll find.

Lastly, let’s not forget that people who work within the licensed trade are as important a consideration where mental health is concerned. Just over one in 10 pub workers have missed work because of a mental health issue, according to research by the Licensed Trade Charity who run a dedicated 24/7 helpline.

More than 50% said they would benefit from a better understanding of mental health issues which have their own particular characteristics in the pressured environment of busy bars with long hours serving sometimes awkward and drunk customers – now there’s an irony!

Useful numbers

If you’re suffering from mental health issues or loneliness here some handy contacts:

The Samaritans are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can call them on 116 123 or email [email protected]

For loneliness – Connecting Communities, York. Call weekdays on 01904 785272

York Mind – for information on Mental Health resources call 01904 643364 during the day

For licensed trade workers: Licensed Trade Charity Free 24 hour helpline 0808 801 0550

Nick Love is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers and an experienced pub campaigner. He’s a regular interviewee on all things pub related on local and national radio and TV and is York CAMRA’s Pub Protection Officer