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Staff Perspective: Alcohol Use and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Staff Perspective: Alcohol Use and the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dr. Jeff Cook

At this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all likely seen jokes and memes related to increases in alcohol consumption. References to imbibing in a “Quarantini” and jokes about frequent day drinking have been common across a variety of social media platforms. All joking aside, just how much has consumption of alcohol increased during the pandemic and how much attention should behavioral health providers be focusing on these changes?

Researchers have tried to answer the first question by investigating two primary sources: data on alcohol sales and information obtained from surveys of the public. Nielsen, famous for reporting on consumer and entertainment trends, cited peak increases of up to 54% for in-store and 477% for online sales of alcohol during the months of March and April 2020, as compared to the same timeframes in 20191. Additionally, news reports have spotlighted companies such as Drizzly.com, an online service that connects consumers with liquor stores for home delivery, that have reported surges of up to 800% and consistent growth in the range of 350% over last year’s performance2. While these increases are indications that direct sales of alcohol are up during the pandemic, it is difficult to know whether these increased sales also represent increased consumption, versus stockpiling behavior as was observed with other “essentials,” like toilet paper.

Surveys about levels and reasons for consumption may provide a better reflection of the amount of actual alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Asked by RAND to compare their drinking habits in spring 2019 to a similar period in spring 2020 (during COVID-19), a nationally representative sample of more than 1500 people reported an overall 14% increase in alcohol consumption. Women, individuals in the 30-59 year age range, and non-Hispanic White individuals were identified as particularly impacted and as potential targets for education about increased alcohol consumption during this period3. Surveys conducted by a variety of other organizations [i.e., Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center (WYSAC)4, The Recovery Village5, and Alcohol.org6 have reported similar increases in both regular drinking and in heavy or binge drinking during the pandemic.

With documented increases in alcohol sales and alcohol consumption, behavioral health providers may want to consider how best to support their clients during this period. But targeted education and intervention would benefit from a better understanding of why individuals are using more alcohol. Fortunately, some of the earlier-mentioned surveys also queried respondents about their reasons for drinking during COVID-19. Respondents to both the WYSAC and Recovery Village surveys reported drinking to relieve both boredom and stress during pandemic lockdowns and quarantines. Additionally, many of those surveyed cited consuming alcohol to address feelings of isolation and to cope with mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Not only has the everyday life that they are used to been disrupted, but individuals have been cut-off from many of their typical support resources: family, friends, and social outlets.

So what can we, as behavioral health providers, do to support our clients? Fortunately there are many recommendations for healthier ways to cope with stress that are still relevant and achievable, even during a pandemic. Suggestions for methods to address stress and loneliness include:

  • Relieve boredom by taking up new hobby or revisiting an old one
  • Go for socially distanced walks around your neighborhood or take up other outdoor hobbies that can accommodate masks and social distancing
  • Have video calls or play online games with friends and loved ones to decrease feelings of isolation
  • Decrease consumption of news and social media if it brings more stress
  • Learn and practice a relaxation technique such as guided meditation or yoga, both of which are offered in online formats

While these coping techniques are good alternatives to the over-consumption of alcohol in the short term, they may not be able to address the larger effects of the increases in alcohol use that have already been observed. In next week’s blog, we will identify some of the dangers related to greater use of alcohol during the pandemic and will discuss the impact of COVID-19 on treatment for Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Jeffrey Cook, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and retired Navy Veteran, serving as a Director for Training and Education at the Center for Deployment Psychology. In this capacity, Dr. Cook oversees multiple training programs and research studies in support of CDP’s mission to support the disseminations and implementation of evidence-based treatments to military-connected populations.

References:

1 Nielsen. “Rebalancing the 'COVID-19 Effect' on Alcohol Sales.” Nielsen, 5 July 2020, www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/article/2020/rebalancing-the-covid-19-effect-on-alcohol-sales/.
2 Pezenik, Sasha. “Alcohol Consumption Rising Sharply during Pandemic, Especially among Women.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 29 Sept. 2020, abcnews.go.com/US/alcohol-consumption-rising-sharply-pandemic-women/story?id=73302479.
3 Pollard, Michael S., Joan S. Tucker, and Harold D. Green. "Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Consequences During the COVID-19 Pandemic in the US." JAMA Network Open 3.9 (2020): e2022942-e2022942.
4 Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center. “Alcohol use and COVID-19 in Wyoming.” Wyoming Department of Health. July 2020. https://wysac.uwyo.edu/wysac/reports/View/6699
5 LaNeve, Nicole. “Substance Use on the Rise During COVID-19 Pandemic.” The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab, The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab, 18 Sept. 2020, www.therecoveryvillage.com/drug-addiction/news/drug-alcohol-use-rising-during-covid/.
6 American Addiction Centers. “Drinking Alcohol When Working from Home.” Alcohol.org, 2020, www.alcohol.org/guides/work-from-home-drinking/.

Staff Perspective: Alcohol Use and the COVID-19 Pandemic | Center for Deployment Psychology

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