Underlying the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is another public health crisis that has devastated American lives for decades: alcohol misuse and addiction. For years, medical professionals and organizations, including the American Cancer Society, have warned against excessive consumption. Now, the isolation, uncertainty, and stress created by the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated alcohol misuse, as more people are turning to drink in an attempt to cope.
The Recovery Village recently published a comprehensive study of more than 2,000 American adults who have either attempted to stop using alcohol or want to stop. When looking at factors like the reasons behind alcohol use, reported health complications, and other impacts on everyday life, the survey indicates that there’s still work to do educating the public about the risks of alcohol use and developing healthy coping strategies.
A Wave of Alcohol Addiction
A majority of survey respondents (65%) reported their alcohol use was due to stress, while another 44% drank to relieve mental health symptoms such as anxiety or depression. Another 38% used alcohol due to boredom. This is especially concerning in light of the effects of COVID-19, including social isolation and prolonged feelings of uncertainty.
It’s been widely reported that the pandemic has caused mental health concerns to rise. The U.S. Census found that anxiety and depression symptoms in Americans rose from 11% in 2019 to 42% in December 2020. Figures like these, combined with the finding that mental health challenges, stress, and boredom all contribute to drinking, indicate that the pandemic is likely creating long-lasting concerns with alcohol use and addiction as well.
Additionally, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has noted that past disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, have caused alcohol use to increase. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a traumatic event and has disrupted nearly every facet of American life. It’s reasonable to assume that if previous traumatic events had an effect on alcohol use, this one will as well.
If the pandemic is contributing to increased rates of alcohol use, then it’s important to look at how ongoing misuse affects drinkers and what it means for long-term recovery.
Effects of Alcohol Use
Among the survey respondents, over half (54%) said alcohol use affected their physical health and nearly half (45%) reported an impact on their mental health.
- 38% reported developing depression
- 31% reported high blood pressure
- 17% reported liver disease
The outcomes were even more severe for heavy drinkers — people who binge drink five or more days per month. They were:
- Twice as likely to report liver disease, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease
- 85% more likely to be depressed
- 73% more likely to have seizures
- 48% more likely to have cancer
Many of these conditions are irreversible and can only be treated through medications, lifestyle changes, and abstaining from further alcohol use. However, it’s often difficult to stop drinking once dependence or addiction develops. Unlike many other substances, withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be life-threatening, making professional supervision and support even more important.
Recovery Rates and Barriers to Alcohol Addiction Treatment
When people are dependent on alcohol, they will typically experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when they stop use and begin detoxing. Of the survey respondents who had been through detox, around half reported irritability, fatigue, stress, or anxiety when they detoxed from alcohol. For most (95%), the symptoms lasted from two to eight days.
These symptoms alone could cause someone to end the detox process early, but other symptoms are far more dangerous. Of those surveyed, 11.4% reported experiencing delirium tremens — a life-threatening form of withdrawal that usually occurs in heavy drinkers. Additionally, 23% reported having a rapid heart rate, and 8.2% reported seizures. Again, heavy drinkers are more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms when stopping use.
Because of the dangers and discomfort involved with detox, it’s often best to attend a medical detox at a substance abuse treatment facility. Unfortunately, only 17% of around 14.1 million Americans with alcohol addiction received treatment in 2019. Our survey found that people often don’t seek the treatment they need due to financial concerns, uncertainty around the rehab experience, and a lack of time.
While these barriers are very real for the person considering treatment, they’re also surmountable. There are many different options to help offset the cost of treatment, including insurance, private pay rates, and payment plans. Having an open, direct conversation with a treatment provider about their services and a recommended treatment plan for you can help alleviate any concerns about what to expect. There is a full continuum of addiction care, from inpatient, medically-supervised detox to outpatient services. If individuals are concerned about fitting treatment into their lives, they may just need to identify the level of care that meets their needs.
The results of this survey give us reason for concern. We have an urgent need to address how the pandemic has influenced mental health, substance use, and addiction. It is also necessary to have candid conversations about substance use and coping strategies that fight stigma and promote positive mental health practices.
In the coming months and years, it will be important for communities, medical organizations, and both state and federal entities to shine the spotlight on addiction. Without creating recovery resources, improving access to care, and fostering awareness for affordable and effective treatment, it’s likely that the end of the COVID-19 health crisis will only serve as a transition into another — one that allows poor mental health and coping mechanisms to lead to addiction.
About the Author: Carlos Davila is an Awareness Advocate at The Recovery Village®, an Advanced Recovery Systems Brand
National Alcohol Awareness Month
April is National Alcohol Awareness Month, sponsored by the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). This yearly public awareness campaign is “aimed at educating people about the treatment and prevention of alcoholism, particularly among our youth, and the important role that parents can play in giving kids a better understanding of the impact that alcohol can have on their lives.”
Alcohol is the most misused substance by teens and adults in the United States.
Are you concerned about your use of alcohol? Take this free screening to see if you are at-risk of developing an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
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