The COVID-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented global health crisis. Along with it has come an unexpected rise in harmful alcohol use including higher rates of alcohol dependence and relapse among recovering individuals. Since the start of the pandemic, mental health concerns combined with the use of alcohol in isolation have led to higher incidences of addiction along with social and community ills.
We take a comprehensive look at the impact of the pandemic on alcohol use and dependence and the role of the government in addressing the hidden pandemic of addiction.
The Consequences of Alcohol Use During the Pandemic
Recent reports have shown that the harmful consumption of alcohol in the UK has risen exponentially since the social and physical restrictions were imposed in a bid to lessen the impact of COVID-19 in 2020.
The lockdown period and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic heightened individual fears and exacerbated many mental health concerns. For those who were socially and physically restricted from their loved ones, their jobs, and their hobbies, symptoms of anxiety and depression were worsened with the associated use of alcohol.
As businesses including social hangouts such as pubs and restaurants were closed, data collected during the lockdowns indicated a negative impact on the rate of drinking in adult populations. This despite the alcohol trade also being closed or reduced for the same period. In England, there has been a rise in high-risk drinking along with attempts to curb or manage heavy alcohol consumption.
The initial stages of the lockdown certainly had a negative impact on mental healthcare and higher rates of alcohol consumption were recorded among heavy drinkers during this period. Studies also revealed that alcohol consumption was greater among young women who experienced anxiety and stress because of financial difficulties during the lockdown period.
There is no doubt that a trend has emerged in different parts of the UK with increasing rates of harmful alcohol use and high-risk behaviors since restrictions were implemented in 2020. Hospitalizations for alcohol-related diseases and injuries, higher incidences of domestic violence, and increases in the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed, particularly among those who were heavy drinkers prior to the pandemic, have been reported. This has also heightened the risk of developing alcohol dependence in affected populations.
Facts Surrounding Alcohol Use in the UK
According to a sample study of 18 to 34-year-olds in the UK during the lockdown period, 17% of respondents revealed an increase in their use of alcohol. There were also reports of mental health difficulties for the same group along with high alcohol consumption. There were further findings of an association between alcohol use, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and poor mental well-being.
Sadly, one in six adults in the young population in the UK has reported an increase in their alcohol intake since the implementation of the COVID-19 lockdowns. These figures have called for a need to make mental healthcare support available as individuals and communities transition from the lockdowns into everyday life.
In the UK, there was also an increase of 13.5% in unplanned hospital admissions for alcohol-related liver disease from 2020 to the present day. Without close attention paid to this hidden pandemic of alcohol use and addiction, more people are yet to suffer from psychological, emotional, and physical symptoms that have been worsened since COVID-19.
What are the Signs of Alcohol Dependence?
Understanding the presence of alcohol addiction & dependence can help you or a loved one find the help you need when drinking gets in the way of your health and happiness.
As heavy drinkers across the UK have primarily increased their alcohol consumption, it is important to recognise the higher risk of developing addiction among these groups.
Men and women who drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week, for example, 10 glasses of moderate strength wine, are considered heavy users and at risk of suffering from acute and chronic health issues. This includes the risk of a dysfunctional nervous system, the development of cancer, and liver disease.
We asked a leading addiction expert – Paul Spanjar of the Providence Projects Alcohol Rehab Centre in Dorset – how he would define alcohol addiction and dependence.
“Alcohol addiction or dependence is characterized by an inability to control, quit, or reduce the amount of alcohol consumed. Individuals who frequently consume alcohol or are considered heavy drinkers, build tolerance and suffer from withdrawal symptoms when alcohol is not consumed. Those with severe alcohol dependence may need specialist treatment due to the risks of severe alcohol withdrawal known as Delirium Tremens”.
What is Government Doing to Help Curb Harmful Alcohol Use During the Pandemic?
More evidence is required to determine the mental health risk factors that may predispose individuals to drink more during the pandemic. This includes the incidences of higher amounts and more frequent consumption in heavy alcohol drinkers. It is also the role of the government to determine why individuals are drinking more heavily and whether effective and targeted support strategies are available to help those who want to help themselves overcome both harmful alcohol consumption and dependence.
There are many reasons as to why the rates of alcohol consumption may have increased within the last year. With the onset of the lockdown, more people experienced high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression by remaining in isolation.
Many had also expressed fears and uncertainty concerning their employment, their financial health, and their risk of contracting COVID. Studies further revealed that stress was a major determinant of whether individuals increased or abstained from their usual drinking habits. The rise in alcohol use was also more prominent among individuals who were furloughed since the lockdown at a rate of 35% compared to 24% in the general population.
When considering the lockdowns and the fears that have emerged during the pandemic, drinking behaviors in the UK have been associated with compromised mental health, financial concerns, and difficulty coping with the uncertainty of the future.
It is the responsibility of the government to acknowledge the rising levels of alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic and its far-reaching mental health, social, and physical impact at an individual and community level. Individuals and families who want and need help to overcome alcohol addiction or reduce heavy drinking should have access to support programs with options for inpatient or outpatient intervention. We are yet to see a shift in community approaches to curb alcohol use and negate its impact on the health and mental well-being of those using alcohol and those affected by the drinking habits of their loved ones.