COVID-19: Letter from Our Director

Alcohol Awareness during the COVID-19 Pandemic

 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s imperative we hone in on the habits that directly affect our health and wellbeing. During the month of April, we would like to shed some light on the topic of alcohol use and misuse. As the number one most consumed psychoactive substance in the United States, excessive alcohol use, especially during COVID-19 social isolation, poses another significant threat to individuals and families.

 

In this country, much of our social culture is centered around eating and drinking, especially alcohol. In the midst of COVID-19 related stress - there has been an explosion of drinking-related memes and witty jokes being shared on social media, group texts, etc. Humor is therapeutic, especially during such trying times. We need to smile, but we also need to pay close attention to the underlying messages we are receiving and sending out. The truth is, drinking is not going to help us cope with the weeks and months ahead. Instead, it has the potential to threaten both our mental and physical health.

 

Alcohol use disorder is a chronic, progressive disease that is fatal if left untreated. It is estimated to claim the lives of 88,000 people each year. Each April, since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) sponsors Alcohol Awareness Month to increase awareness and understanding, reduce the stigma, and to encourage local communities to focus on alcohol use disorders and alcohol-related issues.

 

Unfortunately rates of alcohol consumption, and of heavy drinking, are expected to rise as result of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 55.3 percent of people ages 18 or older reported they drank in the past month, and over 26 percent reported past month binge drinking. For many people, alcohol is considered an essential purchase. Although establishments such as bars and restaurants have been shut down in Michigan due to COVID-19, alcohol is still available for purchase at grocery stores, gas stations, etc. Alcoholic beverage sales have skyrocketed as people ‘stock up’ on beer, wine, and liquor. After a long, stressful day of COVID-19 related bad news – a glass, or two, of wine or beer might feel like it’s exactly what is needed. However, the risks of increased drinking and alcohol misuse are real.

 

Alcohol directly affects the brain, causing changes in mood and behavior. As the addiction progresses, it can lead to or worsen existing depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Alcohol also has the ability to decrease immune function, which can increase susceptibility to illness, etc. At a time when COVID-19 is spreading quickly through communities, excessive alcohol use is especially dangerous.

 

With the right help, recovery is possible. In the U.S., there are an estimated 20 million individuals and family members living in recovery. If you find yourself or a loved one having a drinking problem, now is the time to take action. Talk to someone you trust, reach out to your doctor or therapist. Many providers are offering virtual appointments. There are also numerous resources that you can access from home such as virtual AA and NA meetings.

 

We’ve compiled a list of Coronavirus COVID-19 Addiction/Recovery Resources to help support you and your loved ones during this trying time. The list includes free 24 hour helplines and text lines, online mutual support group meetings (AA, NA, etc.), and other helpful resources. Don’t delay getting the help you or your loved one needs. We’re in this together.

 

Sincerely,

Frederic C. Blow

 

Director, U-M Addiction Center

Professor, Department of Psychiatry

Director, Substance Abuse Program

Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology

Senior Research Scientist, Center for Clinical Management Research, Ann Arbor VA Healthcare System

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Risks of Alcohol and Other Drug Use

We are in unprecedented times. The COVID-19 pandemic is causing dramatic changes for all of us. At a time when so many people with COVID-19 are fighting for their lives, a conversation about substance use may seem trivial. Yet across the United States, and here at Michigan Medicine, the COVID-19 pandemic is causing dramatic increases in psychiatric emergencies, overdoses, and relapse. These are our patients. They’re your loved ones, your friends, your colleagues. Their lives are at risk, not only from the possibly of contracting COVID-19, but because they suffer from an additional threat. Addiction has always been a matter of life and death, and now, during these uncertain times, those who abuse alcohol and/or other drugs, as well as those in recovery, are particularly vulnerable. According to Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), COVID-19 could be a serious threat to individuals with substance use disorders, due to its attack on lung and pulmonary function.

With so many unknowns, the uncertainty of this situation, as well as mandates for social distancing/isolation measures, people are experiencing a considerable amount of stress. The abrupt cancellation of 12-step meetings, group therapy, outpatient addiction treatment programs, etc. has sent shock waves through the recovery community. The ability to maintain healthy social connections is one of the most important elements of mental wellness and is a core component to recovery. On the flip side, research shows that social isolation not only has damaging effects on physical and mental health, but also is a major risk factor for addiction and relapse.

 

For those of us who are not in recovery, and who do not have an addition, COVID-19 related changes such as social distancing and isolation have led to increased opportunities to consume alcohol and/or other drugs. For some of us, a glass of wine (or two) is our go-to after a stressful day. Many of us have ‘stocked up’ on our favorite alcoholic beverages, with the belief that it will help “get us through” these uncertain times. We are not prohibitionists, but we are urging everyone to think about this rapidly evolving situation we’re in, and what we are (and are not) going to do in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy.

 

Addiction is a progressive disease. This means that it typically starts slowly, and without treatment, it progresses. The regular use of alcohol and/or other drugs cause changes in the brain that lead to stronger and stronger cravings of the substance. It no longer becomes a matter of willpower or choice. These persistent, strong cravings lead to more use, and the ability stop using the drug becomes more and more difficult.  This is the vicious cycle of addiction, and why we consider addiction a medical problem and a chronic disease.

 

COVID-19 is going to continue to bring changes to our lives, but we are not alone in this. There is great reason for hope. It’s amazing to see how people are coming together – working on innovative solutions (telehealth, virtual meetings, etc.), providing encouragement and support, and demonstrating their dedication to helping one another. Mental health and substance use specialists are working overtime to create solutions. Our clinic (University of Michigan Addiction Treatment Services - UMATS) is working to provide remote support for their patients.

 

Today, take some time to learn new ways to stay connected with your family, friends, and community. If you find yourself or a loved one struggling, increasing use, or misusing substances during this trying time, now is the time to take action. Talk to someone you trust. Be sure to let your doctor and/or therapist know how you’re feeling. Remember, addiction thrives on secrecy and loneliness, so please ask for help.  We have complied a list of Coronavirus COVID-19 Addiction/Recovery Resources to help support you during this trying time. The list includes free 24 hour helplines and text lines, online mutual support group meetings (AA, NA, etc.), and other helpful resources. Don’t lose hope. Together, we will get through this.

 

Sincerely,

Frederic C. Blow

 
Professor, Department of Psychiatry
Director, Substance Abuse Program
Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology
Senior Research Scientist, Center for Clinical Management Research, Ann Arbor VA Healthcare System