Alcohol, Substance Abuse Rose During Pandemic

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Alcohol abuseThe rates of substance abuse disorders have risen because of the pandemic — and the effects of this increase may be long-lasting.

The Recovery Village, a Florida-based organization, reports that in recent months, 36% of respondents reported an increase in substance abuse. Alcohol use is also on the rise. Among the states of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut — those hardest hit in the beginning of the pandemic — 67% of survey respondents reported an increase in alcohol consumption, with 25% reporting a significant increase. As to why their consumption increased, respondents replied that:

• 53% were trying to cope with stress

• 39% were trying to relieve boredom

• 32% were trying to cope with mental health symptoms, such as anxiety or depression

“We’re concerned because we feel there are multiple factors leading to an increase in the number of fatal and non-fatal overdoses,” said physician Gale R. Burstein, commissioner of health, Erie County Department of Health.

“In general, people are reluctant to seek non-urgent healthcare. Even though this is a service that can be implemented through telehealth, we think people are reluctant. Telehealth, unfortunately, is relatively new in this area. Many people who could access telehealth are unaware of the availability, especially for substance abuse care.

She added that previously, an in-person visit was required to obtain medication for treating substance abuse disorders. That’s not the case nowadays.

Unprecedented times

Numerous other factors related to the pandemic contributed to an increase in substance abuse, including prescription drug misuse, illicit drugs and alcohol. Keeping people apart was necessary for reducing infections of COVID-19; however, the circumstance made life more difficult for people in recovery.

“People are spending more time alone in their homes,” said Cheryll Moore, community coalition coordinator with Erie County.

As a result, when an overdose occurs, “they’re not in typically social areas, like a McDonald’s bathroom or a car in the plaza.”

When they’re discovered, it may be too late to administer lifesaving care, Moore said.

A lack of routine also hampers recovery from substance abuse disorder. Many people were furloughed from work or laid off entirely. Their spouse and children may have been home more as well. Some still do not have their regular work schedule restored. Any regular activities like going to the gym, church or club or meeting a friend for coffee ended for a time. Special events such as weddings are delayed or curtailed.

While many social aspects of life are available once again, they’re still not the same, as managers of public spaces still enforce social distancing, encourage wearing masks and limit patrons at a time. It’s all an obvious reminder that life pre-pandemic won’t be back soon. To some people, the hassle and stress may drive them into self-enforced isolation.

“During times of stress, people are looking for a way to feel better,” said Anna Shurmatz, licensed clinical social worker and owner of Shurmatz Counseling in Buffalo. “The faster they can reach that feeling of being relaxed and not the things that are occupying their head, the better. Drugs and alcohol are good at doing that quickly.”

She noted that the normalization of substance abuse, such as jokes on social media about “wine o’clock” minimizes the serious problem of substance abuse. With a lack of accessibility to many healthy means of coping, it’s easy to revert to that which is comfortable, “especially for those hanging on by their fingertips, who feel like they’re living in a pressure cooker,” Shurmatz added.

Shurmatz said that virtual support meetings have been very helpful for those able to connect to them, particularly younger people accustomed to connecting through social media. But including phone calls in telehealth can aid those who do not want to use virtual meetings.

It’s important to not stay isolated.

“Reach out, reach out, reach out,” urged Robin Mann, executive director for Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. “Although we’re socially distant, there’s still opportunity to seek help.”

Whether a crisis hotline for a more urgent need or simply calling a supportive family member, connecting with someone else is vital.

For someone who’s using drugs but who is not in crisis, seeking other ways to cope can help reduce using substances. Shurmatz said that trying new things like yoga, mindfulness, exercise, journaling or dancing could help. Renew a lost interest to fill empty hours.

“There’s no right or wrong way to do these things,” she said.

She also encourages people to look at any risks in their homes such as stockpiles of unused prescriptions or medication that’s not locked up. Many pharmacies in the area have drop-offs for unwanted medication to minimize accessibility to drugs.

Anyone in need of help can contact the NYS HOPEline (1-877-8-HOPENY or text 467369) which operates 24/7 to help direct people to treatment and other services.