‘Pandemic drinking’ result of access, anxiety as agencies see alcohol use soar

MEDWAY, Mass. — Social service providers knew this would be a busy spring. Isolation, anxiety, and economic uncertainty over the pandemic have led, especially, to an unprecedented demand for psychological counseling and help with substance abuse issues.

“We actually were hyperfocused on overdoses,” said Jennifer Levine, executive director of the S.A.F.E. Coalition of Franklin. “That is something that we were getting ready for so we created a video for Narcan use... we ordered more Narcan ... we created a platform for that online.”

And the organization did see that increase in overdoses.

But then COVID-19 seemed to throw mental health professionals a curveball.

"We're seeing a huge increase in drinking in particular," said Jaclyn Winer, LICSW, Director of Holliston Youth and Family Services. "You know, if you're stressed out, have a glass of wine and unwind. That's perfectly normal and healthy. But if you are someone who struggles with substance use that can really lead to worsening use."

Liquor stores never closed during the pandemic. They were deemed as essential as grocery stores and pharmacies -- and there were serious health reasons for that, said Levine.

“The biggest concern was folks that use alcohol on a daily basis and were told they couldn’t use that alcohol would either withdrawal on their own at home -- which is a huge concern, or they would find other means to use alcohol,” she said, such as ingesting isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol.

The fear was that either because of withdrawal symptoms or poisoning, these chronic alcohol users would wind up in hospitals focused on dealing with COVID-19.

But Levine said there appears to have been an unintended consequence of making alcohol available to the legions suddenly forced to work or study from home -- no matter what level of drinker they started out as.

“There’s just more access to alcohol,” she said. “So many stores are delivering. There are alcohol delivery services.”

Unfortunately, Levine said some of the alcohol is winding up in the hands of kids.

“A lot of parents are recognizing that their child -- their middle school, high school, college-age child are increasing their alcohol use -- which is a huge concern for them,” she said.

Another big concern: those in recovery who have had no access to ‘live’ support meetings for months. That has taken a terrible toll.

“Unfortunately, folks who were relying on certain services have, unfortunately, relapsed,” Winer siad.

“For those that are occasional drinkers or drink socially, you might not think twice about a liquor store being open,” she added. “But when we think about the messages that are getting sent to our youth and our recovery community, I think that can definitely persuade somebody who maybe had been in recovery to start drinking again.”

Although the pandemic is easing, there's no way to know when a vaccine will be available and/or the virus will have infected enough Americans (assuming they become immune as a result) to become a negligible threat.

That gnawing anxiety of 'no end in sight' -- means the need for counseling and other social services will likely continue to rise.

“We will emerge from this in a healthy and safe way,” Winer said. “I think anxiety is bound to be there. But as long as we can lean into the anxiety and not dismiss it, I think we’ll be able to get through this.”

In other words, if you need help -- it's there. Don't be afraid to get it.

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