By Kim Maialetti
For people struggling with alcohol use, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges to staying sober.
Feelings of isolation, boredom and uncertainty coupled with the proliferation of Zoom happy hours and creative boozy concoctions like ‘quarantinis,’ have been a recipe for relapse for some.
“Everybody’s routine has been flipped upside down,” said Nicole Orro, licensed professional counselor and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor, director of Outpatient Services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health. “And some people have slipped and used again.”
Fortunately, however, help is available, and support may be more accessible than ever.
Increase in Alcohol Consumption
Market research shows that as COVID-19 started spreading across the United States, forcing millions of people to shelter at home, alcohol sales skyrocketed.
For the week of March 21, hard liquor sales were up 75 percent compared to the same time last year while wine sales rose by 66 percent and spiked seltzers by a whooping 456 percent, according to market research firm Nielson.
“My reading of the lay press indicates that there are substantial increases in alcohol purchases,” said Henry R. Kranzler, MD, a professor of Psychiatry and director of the Center for Studies of Addiction at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “So my presumption is that there is an increase in alcohol consumption.”
Isolation: A Significant Risk Factor for Alcohol Abuse
Feeling isolated and alone is a significant risk factor for alcohol abuse, but when the best way to protect against the virus is to stay home, it can be especially hard to avoid those feelings.
“Part of the frustration in this current environment is the quarantine piece,” Orro said. “From a public health perspective people are doing the right thing, but the very thing that really helps people who struggle with alcoholism is social support.”
At the same time, a number of other factors are also at play.
People may be feeling bored and turning to the bottle because they feel like they have nothing else to do.
Others may be feeling pressured to drink because they’re stuck at home with people who drink alcohol themselves and who may not be supportive of their sobriety.
And almost everyone is feeling a greater level of stress and fear because of the virus.
In normal times, people would have more options to manage those feelings with healthy activities like going to the gym or meeting a friend for coffee, but with those activities curtailed because of the virus, alcohol can become an tempting substitute.
“Without healthy coping mechanisms, these feelings and the unpredictability of the virus can be triggers for substance abuse and can make staying sober even more difficult,” Orro said.
Help is Available
For a lot of people, the most feasible option is to seek help through online resources such as Alcoholics Anonymous, said Kranzler.
At the start of the pandemic, many AA groups across the country switched from in-person meetings to virtual meetings, and while the format may have taken some adjusting to, it opened up access to meetings nationwide.
Now, someone from New Jersey can attend a meeting in California simply by logging on to their computer or connecting through their phone.
“The barriers have gone down when it comes to self-help groups,” Orro said. “There’s a bit more accessibility.”
Additionally, many mental health providers, including Princeton House, are offering existing outpatient clients care via telehealth, which allows clients to receive personalized care while minimizing the risk of spreading the virus or other illnesses through direct contact.
Princeton House clients have taken quickly to telehealth, Orro said. Although it is still too soon to say how telehealth will be used in the future, especially as physical distancing and other health and safety guidelines change, for now, it is a convenient way of getting important clinical support when it’s needed.
“Is it different sitting in virtual therapy than in a physical room? Of course it is, but our patients have responded very well to telehealth,” Orro said. “While the circumstances caused by the pandemic may have made it easy for some people to relapse or to go deeper into their dependence on alcohol, the good news is that technology and tools like videoconferencing are now providing convenient and timely ways that individuals who want to get back on track can connect with others and with care providers. They can access the resources they need to maintain sobriety.”