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Alcohol Abuse, Depression Spike Due to COVID-19 Pandemic

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mental health and covid

A new CDC report says that depression, anxiety, trauma, and alcohol abuse have spiked due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is more important than ever to maintain your mental health in the midst of this crisis. Learn how to access effective treatments for mental health problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly hit the United States in early 2020, beginning at hotspots in Washington, California, and New York City. As the virus spread, cities and states across the country implemented stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. Over time, these restrictions gradually eased. However, adjusting to the “new normal” has required an enormous mental shift. Now, new research shows that it’s not just lung functioning that we should be concerned about. The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an all-time high in mental health problems.

COVID-19 and Mental Health

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to track Americans’ general health as well as health problems related to the Coronavirus pandemic. According to a recently released CDC study of 5,412 Americans, the pandemic is severely affecting mental health. The study found that 40.9% of respondents had experienced at least one mental or behavioral health condition since the pandemic. Approximately 31% of people reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, with 10% saying they had seriously considered suicide. More than a quarter said they had symptoms of a traumatic disorder like post-traumatic stress disorder. And 13% said they were using drugs or alcohol more heavily or had started to use drugs for the first time to cope with distress.
It is not surprising that the pandemic is triggering mental health issues, but the degree of the problem is startling. More than 4 of 10 Americans report clinically significant symptoms, far higher than pre-pandemic levels. For comparison, rates of depression symptoms were four times higher than 2019; anxiety symptoms tripled, and suicidal thoughts were twice as common as in recent years. This is an unprecedented mental health crisis facing our country.
At the same time that mental health issues are spiking, access to mental health treatment has become more limited. Stay-at-home orders meant that many mental health providers could no longer operate in their regular capacity. Some switched to telephone or video platforms, while others are still figuring out how to navigate the pandemic. This means that although the demand for mental health treatment may be higher, supply is lower than normal. Many people in need of services cannot get the treatment they need. This is particularly concerning because these symptoms are new for most people. In the CDC study, 90% said they were not being treated for mental health problems before the pandemic began.

Risk Factors for Pandemic Depression and Mental Health Issues

People of all ages and backgrounds have been affected by COVID-19 and related mental health problems. In fact, the former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, said that she has been experiencing a “low-grade depression” since the pandemic began. Although anyone can be affected by pandemic depression and mental health issues, certain groups of people are more vulnerable. The CDC study found that the following groups were more likely to report significant mental health symptoms:

  • Essential workers, including medical providers, emergency responders, and front-line workers at grocery stores and pharmacies
  • Younger adults, who may be in a more financially vulnerable state
  • Racial/ethnic minorities, who are at higher risk for COVID-19 and its complications. Black and Hispanic respondents were more likely to report suicidal thoughts. Hispanic respondents were also more likely to report depression and anxiety.
  • Unpaid adult caregivers. Care-giving is known to exacerbate mental health problems, as it is a very challenging role. Adding the burden of social isolation and a pandemic has made things worse for these vulnerable members of society.

In addition to these risk factors, millions of people found themselves furloughed or laid off due to the pandemic. Many more have their hours cut, leading to serious financial strain. The incredible stress of unemployment, housing insecurity, and difficulty putting food on the table has pushed many Americans to their breaking point. Those who were already vulnerable are in an even more difficult situation, with no clear path forward. It is unsurprising that this would cause an increase in the number of people using alcohol to cope with their stressors.

Recognizing the Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction

People sometimes joke about using alcohol to de-stress, but excessive alcohol use is incredibly damaging. During the pandemic, normal boundaries between work or school and home life became blurred. For some people, it became easier to have “just one” drink at lunchtime or earlier in the day. This may seem harmless at first, but it can lead to unintended consequences. Sometimes, alcohol misuse progresses so gradually that it can be tough to recognize its symptoms. You may not think of yourself as an alcoholic, but even seemingly small issues with drinking can be big problems. Read the following list of alcohol addiction symptoms to see if any seem familiar:

  • Wanting to cut back on drinking or making unsuccessful attempts to decrease drinking
  • Having trouble limiting your alcohol intake
  • Feeling cravings or an urge to drink
  • Spending a lot of time drinking, recovering from drinking, or getting alcohol
  • Trouble fulfilling your obligations at work, school, or home due to alcohol use
  • Arguing with friends or your partner about alcohol use
  • Continuing to drink, even if it is causing negative consequences for you (e.g., getting into arguments, having difficulty keeping up at work)
  • Reducing your social activities or hobbies because of drinking
  • Using alcohol when it is not safe, such as driving or while swimming
  • Developing a tolerance, meaning that you need to drink more to feel the same effect
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when you do not drink, such as nausea, shaking, or sweating

Medically Assisted Alcohol Treatment Is Essential

We know that alcohol abuse is more common during stressful life events. What is important is to stop the problem early. Letting alcohol addiction continue without treatment can cause people to drink more, suffer social and financial consequences, and become more isolated. Even if your alcohol abuse began “only” a few months ago due to the pandemic, now is the time to take action.
A thorough alcohol treatment program, focus not only on preventing a person from drinking, but also addressing the root causes of alcohol misuse. The COVID-19 pandemic is not going away anytime soon, and unemployment or underemployment will continue to affect millions of Americans in the near future. Alcohol is a coping strategy to numb the pain of depression, anxiety, stress, and uncertainty about the future. But it is a bad coping strategy that only works in the short term. Over the long term, alcohol abuse causes chronic health problems, exacerbates mental health difficulties, and shortens your lifespan. That is why it is so critical to get effective treatment.
The first step in any alcohol treatment program must be safe alcohol detox. Withdrawal from alcohol without proper medical management can be very dangerous. Symptoms like delirium tremens begin 48 to 96 hours after a person’s last drink. Disorientation, high blood pressure, agitation, sweating, rapid heart rate, hallucinations, and elevated temperature can last for days. In some cases, people have seizures during the withdrawal process. Fortunately, these symptoms can be safely managed in a medical detox setting. By providing medications like benzodiazepines to support a person through the withdrawal process, medical detox protocols offer a safer, more humane approach to detox.
After a person completes detox, their body is free of alcohol but will require time to adjust and heal. This is also a critical window in which to address the root causes of alcohol addiction to prevent relapse.

Supportive aftercare focuses on learning coping skills to deal with life stressors without alcohol. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this might include identifying stress triggers, boosting social support (while following social distancing guidelines), and practicing relaxation strategies. The goal is to learn new skills to weather stress, depression, anxiety, and trauma. By healing your body and mind, effective alcohol treatment prevents relapse and promotes a healthy life.

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