Berrien County Health Dept Cautions: Don’t Let the Pandemic Drive You to Drink



When historians look back on the global pandemic of 2020, there will be billions of bits of data to peruse from virtually any angle you want to consider. There will also be enough social media threads to weave stories to last a lifetime. Two interesting and recurring social media questions shine a harsh light on the reality of life during the pandemic, both just nipping at the edges of the deep underlying problem they allude to.

How many times have you seen some variation on the rhetorical question of, “Seriously? I can’t have somebody mow my elderly parents’ lawn or get a haircut but I can stock up on all the booze I want?” Liquor stores have been exempt from executive stay home, stay safe orders since the very beginning.

That also spawned the more comical thread of “What will I do when I can finally take back all these beer bottles and cans? Buy a new boat, a condo on the Gulf, and maybe my own jet!” For health reasons, stores rapidly discontinued acceptance of returnable beverage containers to slow the spread of COVID-19 in often times unsanitary return stations.

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Sadly, both of those relatively lighthearted debates that have ensued in your timeline and mine for weeks on end are just the fringe of today’s pandemic reality. The toll that loneliness, stress and social isolation take on the human spirit can be incalculable because we all react differently to the environment and conditions thrust upon us. Documentation is already at hand showing a sharp increase in unhealthy and excessive use of alcohol during this stay home period. The goal was to say home, and stay safe. Some among us have simply traded one ailment for another, avoiding the coronavirus but seriously threatening health through alcoholism.

The numbers don’t lie. Alcohol sales have increased by more than half (55-percent at last count) in the last quarter alone.

Lisa Peeples-Hurst, Public Health Prevention and Promotion Supervisor for the Berrien County Health Department warns, “Using alcohol is not the answer to help us cope with what’s going on in the world around us and it doesn’t set a positive example for our kids. In fact, it can have the opposite affect and can cause mental health issues like depression and anxiety to worsen.” Peeples-Hurst continues, “Alcohol can also make us more susceptible to illnesses, like coronavirus, because it decreases our immune function.”

The good news is, with the right help, recovery is possible. If you find yourself struggling with alcohol dependence or abuse now, or at any time for that matter, this is the time to take action. Don’t wait until the shelter-in-place orders are lifted. That could prove to be too late. There are multiple remote and virtual resources available to help assist you in taking the first step on your journey to recovery. The Berrien County Health Department has many resources to help and they are at your finger tips right now by clicking this link: http://bchdmi.org

Remember, it’s natural for all of us to feel far more vulnerable at a time like this, and to be afraid of the unknown. To be afraid to discuss the concerns we face. Fearful of looking to others for support, worried that we’ll look weak or incapable of holding up under stressful conditions.

Turning to alcohol in hopes of easing those fears and concerns can actually backfire as anxiety is many times a side effect of drinking disorders that we never considered. If anxiety soars when drinking, rather than receding from the surface, we run the risk of actually enhancing those feelings of unease during an already far too confusing time.

Another serious issue during this particular pandemic is the ease of access of vast amounts of information, not always factual…not always helpful…and very often downright scary whether true or not. Inasmuch as few among us can grasp the full potential of what the virus can do, taking in a steady stream of contradictory information in these days of the 24-hour news cycle both in traditional media and online can be debilitating for even the healthiest individuals. Worrying endlessly about the loss of financial support, uncertainty about when or how things will shake out lead to risky decisions at times. Keep in mind that reaching for a beer, cocktail or glass of wine can sometimes enhance those anxieties or make it more likely for a problematic pattern of alcohol use to either get underway or continue.

The Berrien County Health Department strongly encourages everyone to acknowledge and understand the challenges we all face during the pandemic in order to avoid the use of alcohol to self-medicate, especially when such activity can increase certain COVID-19 related risks.

Keep in mind that what you consider simple social drinking now can evolve when you least expect it. The Partnership for Drug Free Kids warns that researchers who have studied binge drinking during other health epidemics and natural disasters found a greater likelihood of alcohol use disorders within a year to two years after the event. Those researchers say, “We’ve been conducting on-going research on alcohol consumption with respect to COVID-19. We are looking at its impact in both the general public and on individuals trying to change their drinking, and over half of our respondents to date have reported an increase in their drinking. The reasons given included losing a job, fear of getting the virus, boredom, no access to a gym or other healthy coping skills, having to postpone a big event, not being able to have elective surgery and more. The lack of structured time and routines like commuting to work may loosen boundaries of when it is okay to drink and how much one may choose to consume.” Remember the old standby meme alleging, “It’s 5 O’clock somewhere.” 

If you have been baffled on the decision to allow liquor stores to remain open during the quarantine, consider this message from those same researchers, “On the flip side, others may have limited or no access to alcohol due to assorted quarantine restrictions or closings. For some, this can be life-threatening. Withdrawal symptoms can lead to seizures and even loss of life for heavy drinkers.” 

It’s not all bad news. The survey folks write, “Our research also found that 19-percent of respondents decreased their use of alcohol. In many cases, being quarantined has allowed them the opportunity to reconsider their relationship with alcohol.” 

Alcohol.org, which is an American Addiction Centers resource writes that “For many, denial is a common trait among those struggling with alcoholism or alcohol abuse,” and warn, “If you struggle with drinking home can be the most dangerous place.” They go on to suggest, “To combat your feelings of anxiety, it may be helpful to stay off social media sites or limit the amount of time you spend watching the news each day. Being proactive about your mental health can help reduce triggers that may keep you in a constant state of worry. While the threat of COVID-19 is real, your mental health should be a main priority as well. Get outside, go for a walk or run, eat balanced meals, and make restful sleep a priority.”

The Berrien County Health Department is working to empower parents and caregivers to create environments where their kids can grow and thrive, despite the pandemic surrounding us. For support in talking to young people about underage drinking visit their website linked earlier in this story to find helpful tips for starting the conversation about avoiding alcohol.

If you are worried about teen drinking taking place in your household during the pandemic or at any time, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has an excellent piece to help your family sort out the Myths vs. the Facts about Underage Drinking. Click this link for that detailed brochure: UnderageDrinkingMythVsFact

While our connectedness through remarkable technology brings a steady stream that sometimes is best closed down to maintain your sanity and ground yourself on the good things that still abound, that same technology is also an excellent resource to connect and/or re-connect with those we love the most whenever and wherever we may desire. The best minds among us remind us to use this time as an opportunity to speak with family members, friends and even therapists…anyone…to help us get through some seriously challenging and uneasy times. As many have recommended, we really should re-characterize today’s buzz word from “social distancing” to “physical distancing.” It’s the physical distancing that we need to avoid unhealthy contact…while we need the social realm to keep reminding us that there are many great days ahead in our lives…we just need to remain diligent and patient.