‘Alcohol is Not Your Friend:’ BCBSM Medical Director of Behavioral Health Digs into His Passion for Advocating Against Alcohol Abuse

Jake Newby

| 6 min read

In 2023, A Healthier Michigan shined a spotlight on Michigan businesses and entrepreneurs helping to grow the “sober curious” trend. But this edition of the series is a bit different. Here, we catch up with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Medical Director of Behavioral Health, Dr. William T. Beecroft, M.D.,D.L.F.A.P.A., whose alcohol abuse treatment efforts and advocacy have factored mightily into his 40-plus-year-career in health care.  
“I’d say I’m fairly passionate about it,” Dr. Beecroft said. “Substance use disorder in general and then alcohol use disorder because it’s such a frequent and easily accessible drug that we can get ahold of in our society.”
Dr. Beecroft has seen the devastating physical and mental effects that excessive alcohol consumption can have on individuals. He speaks out about the long list of potential deadly effects of alcohol so often because he’s seen firsthand what the drug can do to people.
“I had one patient that I was involved with as a medicine resident, and he had severe ascites, which is fluid leaking into the abdominal cavity outside of the bowel,” Dr. Beecroft said. “It can cause you to have an infection really overnight, because it’s a very rich environment for bacteria to grow in. I had to do what’s called a paracentesis on him every week, where I had to draw this extra fluid from his abdomen. It would take about three hours.”
Often, a patient-doctor relationship can become more personal than even relationships shared with a significant other. Vulnerable thoughts and information are sometimes shared in a doctor’s office that aren’t shared elsewhere. 
“In that time, you get a lot of time to spend talking to people,” he said. “Even though you’re not with them as a doctor, they come and go, come in and out, in and out. You get small snippets of conversation and when you do that for two years, you get to know where this person came from, and how his path led to this. I think that really gave me an up close and personal understanding of how what could be construed as a very simple thing of having a drink after work turned into a life-threatening – and life-ending for him – circumstance.”

Alcohol's effect on mental health: How the dialogue has evolved over the years

Discussions about mental health are much more accepted in our society now than they were 20 years ago, and that has extended to alcohol’s adverse impact on behavioral health. Terms like “hangxiety” have developed, and there’s more research and content online than ever before that details alcohol’s ability to heighten feelings of anxiety, depression and other behavioral health symptoms. The negative physical effects of alcohol have been pretty well documented for decades, but Dr. Beecroft said he’s glad to see more of an emphasis in our society on how badly it can harm a person’s mental health. 
“There’s good physiologic reason why it’s a problem,” Dr. Beecroft said. “I think our society has gotten to the point of saying it’s OK to talk about anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a depressogenic drug, it causes depression. Usually on a relatively short-term basis, but if you’re biologically susceptible to major depression or depressive order, it can trigger depressive symptoms adequately to put you in a depressive state more than just overnight. Alcohol can do that … It’s a very habituating substance. It’s subtle. And it’s so widely available and accepted in our society as normal that that’s where people get in trouble with it.”
The sober curious movement across major United States cities can only help to curb at least a tiny portion of the country’s widespread alcohol use. Dr. Beecroft said he hopes the trend gains steam, and more and more individuals can recognize the value in being mindful and present in without relying on alcohol to “enhance” them. 
“I would hope there comes a time where beverage industries move to things that don’t all contain intoxicating substances. I think that’s wise for them to be thinking about that,” he said. “Because people are really realizing that life can’t be experienced through hazy glasses. They really need to be pretty clear. And that’s going to entail not using as much substances. There’s a short-term euphoria that can occur, but the long-term consequences may not be worth it.
“The other piece of that is, you look at other cultures and they have all kinds of different, good-flavored drinks and setting that encourage communication between people. You can sit down over a coffee or a tea or a chai. Fruit-based drinks or smoothies. The whole concept of being able to have a shared experience with another in a healthy way that doesn’t include intoxicating substances. Other cultures have learned and are sometimes wise than western cultures. I think (this trend) is a good way for people to experience the pleasure of being with another person, to be able to share thoughts, ideas and concepts, that’s the important, exciting stuff.”
Using alcohol as a crutch to make connections doesn’t need to be the norm, Dr. Beecroft added.
“I have been in no other situation – even using substances in the past at a party or something like that – that is as exciting as sharing an idea with another person or working out the bugs and working out a concept. Hours can go by and you’re left with a real kind of natural euphoria. That euphoria of discovery, or learning a new person, sharing things that are mutually pleasurable or enjoyable with someone. Those things are more powerful than the substance use-induced euphoria, I think.”
When he reflects on his many years of patient treatment and speaking arrangements, Dr. Beecroft said there is some prevailing advice he finds himself repeating often, and he uses an analogy related to an old fictional personification of alcohol to hammer it home.
“This is kind of a bucolic thing, being in the Lansing area that’s kind of more of a rural area than an urban area. John Barleycorn doesn’t really care, it just likes your company. But you might not like John Barleycorn after a while. And that really is the issue,” he said. “The alcohol doesn’t care. It doesn’t care what happens to you because it can find someone else. Alcohol is not your friend.
"There’s a country western song that is about drinking alone and, ‘I like drinking with Jack’ and these other liquors the guy is drinking," Dr. Beecroft added. "But it’s like, none of them really care about you. All they want is them, all they want is their own needs, which is to be consumed. So, think about it from that perspective. Who are you doing this for? Are you doing it for someone else or are you doing it for yourself?”
More from the AHM Sober Curious series:
Photo credit: Getty Images

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