Experts warn increase in pandemic drinking already having disastrous effects

Months after troubling findings involving increased alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are warning the public and urging safer drinking habits.

In December, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital estimated a sharp one-year increase in drinking during the pandemic will cause an additional 8,000 deaths from alcohol-related liver disease, 18,700 cases of liver failure and 1,000 cases of liver cancer by 2040, the hospital announced last winter.

“A sustained increase in alcohol consumption for more than one year could result in 19-35% additional mortality,” Mass General wrote in a news release.

“Drinking in your house and not leaving is one thing,” said Marisa Silveri, a neuroscientist at McLean Hospital and an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “But as people go to bars, as people are driving places, that’s going to impact traffic-related fatalities. Our systems – our physical systems – there’s already been an increase in liver-related deaths, including in alcohol-related cancers.”

Silveri is not only analyzing the damage of pandemic-era drinking; the single mom of two young kids admits she, too, experienced the urge to drink more during the height of the pandemic.

“In the beginning, I was going right along with the crowd, couldn’t wait to have glass of wine while making dinner, trying to assume some normalcy in our day-to-day, reduce my stress, the kids’ stress going about the world,” said Silveri, director of McLean’s Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health. “And at some point, there was a switch, not because drinking became problematic, but because I had so many demands. I had to wake up and put my feet on the floor, keep going, get my children to virtual school.”

Silveri said researchers have found different groups of people are affected by pandemic alcohol use in various ways depending on their roles and challenges. But stress and isolation have been consistent factors, she said.

“I think one of the most shocking things was not so much that the increase was pretty rapid in how much [people in the study] were drinking,” Silveri said. “There was a focus on how much mothers, in particular, were drinking as they were pretty much shouldering the responsibilities of virtual school.”

Researchers not only found an increase in alcohol use among low to moderate drinkers; they also discovered chronic drinkers’ bingeing habits became even worse.

Most worrisome to Silveri and her peers is a lack of access to physical meetings and therapy or long wait times. Virtual meetings have also prevented many without consistent Internet access to get the help they need.

“This has really got to be one of the greatest struggles, to be socially isolated,” Silveri said. “People who heavily rely on group therapy, which is a very effective approach for helping with substance abuse disorders, anxiety and depression – maybe it was virtual. But people need in-person.”

Silveri, who first shared her story with the Harvard Gazette, is a community activist around adolescent brain development involving substance abuse and hopes her own experience will help “[destigmatize] mental health issues.”

Silveri, who hasn’t had a drink in more than 500 days, found support from her Peloton community and positive reinforcement from the Try Dry app on her phone. She also had fun substituting alcohol for seltzers or mocktails.

“I thought what better than to have my own experience?” Silveri said. “But it was personal and professional. It was, I wanted to feel better; I didn’t want to wake up on a Saturday morning and have any sort of a tinge of headache, even if I wasn’t drinking very much.”

Silveri urges anyone who needs or wants to stop drinking to make small changes and seek support from others. Talking to someone else, even while waiting for professional help, can make a difference, she said.

“I think the biggest message is that any reduction in drinking is a win,” Silveri said. “Not having shame or stigma about saying, ‘Listen, I want to cut down on alcohol. Can you help me?’ Because alcohol is everywhere.”

Silveri also encourages adopting healthy sleep, diet, exercise and meditation habits.

One positive finding from researchers, Silveri said, is that kids, without their usual social events, drank less during the height of the pandemic and were not out driving as much. Anecdotally, there have been instances of kids drinking at home with their parents, but those numbers are limited, Silveri said.

Going forward, parents and role models must encourage children to make the right decisions involving alcohol in the future.

“The question now is: what happens to kids when the barn doors open and they can go back out public and meet up with friends and feel like they want to catch up on lost time, and having endured more than two years of anxiety and depression?” Silveri said. “The influence of parents as role models is very important. The likelihood of kids drinking is decreased dramatically when parents and guardians have a no-tolerance policy.”

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