Learning from the Pandemic Hangover

Alcohol and other substances have long been among our go-to remedies for stress release, social lubrication and entertainment, so it’s not surprising that substances played a large part in our collective coping strategy during the pandemic. They served as a means of entertainment for long nights, weeks and months of being trapped in our homes, and as a way to take the edge off the anxiety, stress, and/or depression associated with the loss of jobs, income, socializing, travel plans and our overall way of life.

As we embarked on a year of Zoom dinner parties, virtual game nights and computer-based cocktail hours, local governments relaxed takeout and home-delivery alcohol restrictions – and alcohol sales soared. For some, alcohol became a daily release from a strained and confusing time.

Educator, family counselor and addiction counselor Mike McGowan (no relation to the writer) explained the likely effect of quarantine on our drinking habits.

“I think when people got shut in and they couldn’t go places, the natural inclination was for them to think, ‘I’ll enjoy myself a little. I’m feeling anxious and nervous, and a drink would take the edge off,’” he said.
“Then one leads to two, and it doesn’t take long before you’re drinking more than you intended on drinking, and it’s affecting your mood.”

But this increase in drinking led to more severe consequences than just a shift in mood, both locally and across the country. 

“We had seen drug usage and overdose deaths from heroin and street drugs going down,” McGowan said. “They’d decreased in our state for three years in a row. We started focusing on it; we were educating people about it; we seemed to be making headway – until COVID.” 

Since the start of the pandemic, increases in drinking nationwide were self-reported across most demographic categories, according to a RAND Corporation study reported by Healthline, and women increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic. And it was noticeable not only to those who were using.

“When I ask kids in the high schools I’m working in, ‘How many of you have noticed that your adult relatives have increased their drinking and drug usage during this time?’” McGowan said that “90% raise their hands.”

Long-term consequences of those short-term coping mechanisms may result. A new study by the University of Arizona Health Sciences found that hazardous alcohol use and likely dependence increased every month for those under lockdowns compared to those not under restrictions, setting some people on a dangerous path toward long-term alcohol dependence.

National Public Radio (NPR) reported in March of this year that cases of alcoholic liver disease are up 30% over the past year in the University of Michigan’s health system, according to Dr. Jessica Mellinger, a liver specialist there. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not yet compiled data on any overall increase in hospitalizations from alcoholic liver disease since the pandemic began, but, Mellinger told NPR, “In my conversations with my colleagues at other institutions, everybody is saying the same thing: ‘Yep, it’s astronomical. It’s just gone off the charts.’”

Kevin, a local member of Alcoholics Anonymous, did not notice an increase in new members during the pandemic, but he did observe some substance-use relapses that people justified by citing increased and unusual stress levels during the pandemic.

“For a few people, because of the isolation, lack of meetings and maybe only having short-term sobriety, they went back out and drank or used,” he said. 

Conversely, people who were already long-standing members of the program fared well. 

“People who were in the program and had some sobriety under their belt for a couple of years found the tools from the program helped them deal with the pandemic – the uncertainty, the powerlessness,” Kevin said. 

This gets to the heart of why so many used alcohol to cope during the uncertainty and stress of the past 14 months: We often just didn’t have any other coping mechanisms to turn to.

Historically, we’ve not been taught coping strategies for dealing with stress. These skills tend to be learned therapeutically rather than preventively, often only after we’ve already succumbed to crippling stress, anxiety or depression and have reached a breaking point. Instead, we typically copy the behaviour modeled for us, leading to generations of families that don’t know any other way of coping with life’s stresses other than substance use.

To help combat this, McGowan is involved in an initiative called Project 180 in collaboration with Cami Peggar, the community impact coordinator of health at United Way; as well as the Sturgeon Bay, Southern Door, Gibraltar and Sevastopol high schools. Project 180 is a peer-mentor group that promotes healthy lifestyles regarding mental health and substances. Students learn healthful ways to cope that they can take into their adult lives as a kind of emotional tool kit to use in times of crisis or stress. 

“The Project 180 mentor group is its own entity in each of the four schools,” Peggar said. “The school counselors recruit kids every year to join and do yearly projects focused on substance misuse and mental health. It started out as a substance-misuse group and expanded to mental health because they go hand in hand – especially this year, when we see the strain on mental health and its effect on substance use.”

Peggar said they’ve had a focus on mental health for several years through the school-based mental-health program called Stride that teaches healthful ways to deal with stress. And though it starts with the students, the positive coping mechanisms are spreading beyond them.

“We’re working to promote that it’s OK to get help for mental health,” Peggar said. “We need to talk about these issues, and that’s part of why the Stride program starts with the kids. It has been filtering through the families and parents and the community in general.”

Help Is Available

• Crisis/Suicide Intervention Hotline, available 24/7 at 920.746.2588 
• Alcoholics Anonymous Hotline for Door and Kewaunee Counties: 855.746.0901
• Door County Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition: 920.421.2177