Each day, we are learning more about the social impacts of COVID-19 and the mitigation strategies, and it should be no surprise that these impacts are deleterious. Over a few months in early 2020, most of our lives became completely reoriented in an effort to manage the unknown effects of the new illness. Families with schedules that were structured around school activities, sports, and church suddenly found themselves sequestered at home indefinitely. When schools reopened, they did so with disjointed schedules subject to the randomness of positive COVID cases. While families felt increased stress, people without children or partners experienced an even more crushing isolation. With remote working, holidays cancelled, churches closed, community activities suspended, and restaurants carry-out only, individuals endured this period through Zoom and social media.
Of course, these were the best-case scenarios. People who became ill from COVID-19 experienced job loss and/or financial problems. Others had a loved-one die from the illness. As a result, the prevalence of depression and anxiety has increased by as much as 25 percent over the past two years, according to the WHO (1).
With a majority of U.S. adults using alcohol before the pandemic (2), many turned to drinking as a way to relieve stress and even boredom. Working from home allowed this behavior to occur earlier in the day and with more frequency than what a pre-pandemic schedule would support (3). In fact, a recent study found that people with symptoms of depression and anxiety were up to three times more likely to endorse the idea of drinking to forget their worries (4). A study by RTI international found that alcohol consumption increased by 39 percent in 2020, with binge drinking increasing by almost a third during the same time period. This data translates to 4.6 million more people exceeding safe drinking guidelines and nine million more people binge drinking (5).
Healthcare professionals are not immune to problems with alcohol and a 2021 study of the pandemic impact on this population indicated that 42 percent had a probable alcohol use disorder (6).
What has become clear is that people turned to alcohol at a time when social supports were disrupted. For individuals who were struggling but were maintaining reasonable functionality just prior to the pandemic became absolutely overwhelmed as the pandemic restrictions lingered and alcohol got added to the mix. All of this confirms what many of my patients so often remarked, “I was doing fine until COVID.”
So, what now? For most people, it should be sufficient to simply be aware of the amount and frequency of alcohol use, while making a concerted effort to reduce overall consumption. For individuals whose alcohol use has become problematic or is interfering with work or relationships, there are a variety of outpatient and inpatient treatment options to support their goals. A quality program will consult with individuals prior to admission to help guide their decisions based upon specific clinical needs. Additionally, the minimum standard of care should include psychiatric and medical services as well as group and individual psychotherapy.
Cayce Paddock, MD is the medical director at the Birmingham Recovery Center (birminghamrecoverycenter.com). She is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and in Addiction Medicine by the American Board of Preventative Medicine.
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