Doctors have warned that people in the United States may be drinking excessively as a way to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a new viewpoint article, two doctors have warned that more people in the U.S. may be turning to alcohol as a way of coping with the “myriad stressors” of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The article, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, proposes a series of interventions to try to minimize this behavior and better support people with alcohol use disorder.
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It is well documented that drinking alcohol is one way that people cope with stressful situations. For example, research has shown that in the U.S., people tend to drink more alcohol following terrorist attacks.
Furthermore, if a person has alcohol use disorder, they are more likely to use alcohol to cope with the stress of a traumatic event.
In this context, the current COVID-19 pandemic is a particular cause for concern. The authors of the current article point out that rather than being a single event, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are prolonged over time, potentially exposing people to ongoing trauma.
Further, the pandemic has caused various potential stressors that a person may cope with by drinking alcohol.
As well as the catastrophic effect on people’s health and the loss and grief experienced by many, the pandemic has also disrupted economies and social and cultural life, threatening people’s jobs, disrupting their interpersonal support structures, increasing barriers to health care, and forcing many people into isolation.
Before the pandemic, researchers had noted that people in the U.S. were tending to drink more. This was particularly the case for females.
Recent research suggests that people in the U.S. increased their alcohol consumption in the early phase of the pandemic. This is in line with similar findings from studies in the United Kingdom and Australia.
Alcohol health effects
This matters because well-documented links exist between increased alcohol consumption and adverse health outcomes.
As the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism point out, alcohol consumption can change mood and behavior, damage a person’s heart, liver, and pancreas, increase the risk of several types of cancer, and weaken a person’s immune system.
Research has also linked excessive alcohol consumption to mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, which may worsen during the pandemic.
Consequently, it is important to encourage people to find alternative coping strategies in response to the stressors of the pandemic. Effective support should also be available for people experiencing the effects of increased alcohol consumption or people with alcohol use disorder.
The authors of the present study offer various suggestions for interventions that may help reduce people’s dependence on alcohol during the pandemic. Other suggestions focus on better preparing clinical services to support people with substance abuse issues.
According to Dr. Shelly F. Greenfield, director of the Alcohol, Drug, and Addiction Clinical and Health Services Research Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, “[i]ncreasing identification of harmful alcohol use in patients and intervening early are key components of addressing this problem.”
“In addition, recognition of the problem from policymakers could lead to changes in federal regulations — such as we have seen with telehealth — and improvements in access to healthcare,” she notes.
The authors suggest that public health messaging should raise awareness of the potential for increased drinking during the pandemic, as well as giving advice on alternative coping strategies for the stressors of the pandemic.
They also suggest that primary care practitioners should offer increased screening for alcohol use disorder when people contact primary care services.
Technologies, such as telehealth — that enable clinical information to pass between doctors and individuals at a distance — may also be valuable for people who are isolating or where the pandemic has forced a reduction in the enrolment for some face-to-face clinical services.
Finally, the authors highlight that ensuring people have access to health insurance to cover medical treatment costs is crucial. This is particularly important given the number of people who depend on work-place health insurance and the significant number of people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.
Co-author Dr. Dawn E. Sugarman, a research psychologist in the Center of Excellence in Alcohol, Drugs, and Addiction at McLean Hospital, notes that:
“We hope this article will call attention to the pandemic’s effects on alcohol use and offer mitigating approaches to this under-recognized public health concern.”
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