The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of our lives in some way or another. Unfortunately, many people have experienced negative changes, including a major impact on their drinking habits. Alcoholism has been on the rise in this past year, with many people finding that they are having a hard time maintaining control of their alcohol consumption.
One study conducted a few months into the pandemic revealed that binge drinking (4 drinks or more in two hours for women, and 5 drinks or more in two hours for men) had increased significantly, especially among women (41%) (1). This study also found that most people had some changes in alcohol use or alcohol-associated negative consequences, including that most people were drinking one more day per month than they were before the pandemic began (1). A Blue Cross Blue Shield study found that there was an overall 23% increase in alcohol consumption, and a third study found a 55% increase in overall consumption, with 18% reporting their alcohol consumption had increased significantly (2, 3). States that were hit hardest by the pandemic, such as New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, reported even higher rates of increased alcohol consumption: 67% of people were drinking more, and 25% were drinking significantly more (3).
While these studies each have varying results, there is no denying that across the board, people are drinking more. This increase is not without consequence. Unfortunately, there has also been a 30-50% rise in hospital admissions for alcoholic liver disease (4). Beyond just physical health, mental health is both a cause and result of excessive drinking. Common reasons cited in studies for increased alcohol consumption were listed as “trying to cope with stress” (53%), “relieving boredom” (39%), and “trying to cope with mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression” (32%) (3).
The Link Between Mental Health and Addiction
Because mental health and substance abuse are so closely linked, it is no wonder that a pandemic that has put such a strain on mental health would create the circumstances for rising alcoholism. Many people have a dual diagnosis, meaning that they have both a substance use disorder and a mental health diagnosis. Alcoholism can contribute to, be caused by, or simply coexist with mental health disorders (11). Some people have found that they used alcohol as a way to cope with their mental health disorder. Others began to cope with life circumstances using alcohol, which caused patterns that have morphed into depression, anxiety, or other disorders (11). The pandemic has negatively affected both drinking habits and mental health, creating a very unique storm that is hard for many people to get out of. There are so many factors that have impacted people’s health, including:
- Isolation and lack of social support
- Reduced access to addiction support programs
- Economic downturn and financial uncertainty
- Added stress from working and parenting from home
- Easy access to alcohol and increased alcohol-related online social events
- Boredom, lack of purpose
The Importance of Social Support
The pandemic put a very unique strain on social relationships. Because isolation, distancing, and reducing contact with those outside the home have been a huge part of people’s lives for the past year, most people are understandably feeling more alone. Many people find it hard to communicate almost exclusively through technology, and some people found that the quality and frequency of communication suffered because of the pandemic. All of this has resulted in many people feeling an increase in loneliness and a lack of social support.
Loneliness and reduced social connection can heighten health risks, including substance abuse and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety (5). It follows that quality of social support is a huge predictor of overall success for those seeking treatment, including the chances of relapse (6, 7). Not only does being supported by other people help, but studies show that those who are struggling with addiction who act as a source of support in recovery groups have significantly lower rates of relapse as well (6, 7).
So, the pandemic has created a new challenge in getting the right kinds of social support to promote health and treat addiction. One study found that 39% of people surveyed increased the amount they regularly drank directly due to social, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and impulse problems (1). This disturbance of relationships extends past regular social groups into addiction recovery programs as well. Recovery programs that focus on mutual peer support (as well as behavioral therapies) have proved to be incredibly helpful resources for those who want to get control over their drinking habits (7). Some people who regularly attended these programs found the shift to an online setting felt similarly dissatisfying as the rest of their social engagements moving online did (9). It also posed a problem for those who don’t have the right tech equipment or sufficient wifi to connect to meetings (9).
Other Factors in Increased Drinking
Beyond isolation and lack of access to support and help, many other factors have caused stress and increased drinking. The economic downturn, mandatory closure of many businesses, and reduced staffing have created a lot of uncertainty for many people. Some people who suddenly found themselves underemployed or without a job entirely experienced sudden financial stress. Not only does financial stress create a mental and physical burden, but the sharp increase in time, boredom, and isolation can all be factors that lead someone to increase their drinking habits, or go back to drinking after a period of sobriety.
Other people had a different experience, although one that still has led them to drink too much. Some parents who shifted to working at home, parenting full time, and trying to make online school successful for their children experienced a steep increase in stress. Given that the responsibility of caretaking generally falls more heavily on mothers, this could explain why so many studies showed that women’s drinking habits were increasing in frequency and intensity (1, 2, 3).
Another notable factor that has contributed to this nationwide shift toward heavier drinking is the way that many people made the shift toward online interaction. Happy hours, “quarantinis”, and even memes shifted general sentiment to be very accepting of drinking as a way to cope with the new, strange circumstances. Combined with the easy process of ordering alcohol online and getting it delivered to your door, online alcohol sales increased 500% by April 2020, and heavy alcohol intake has increased steadily as well (10).
How to Regain Control and Get Healthy
While it has been a very hard year, there is some good news. Amazingly, states are starting to open up, the economy is rebounding, and many recovery programs are meeting in person again. Still, these factors may not be enough to help you or your loved one get over some of the setbacks they have experienced in their addiction to alcohol. If you or a family member needs help, please reach out to us. Our qualified team of addiction treatment and mental health professionals is available to help guide and support you as you work toward getting sober and healthy.