Across the nation, April is Alcohol Awareness Month, and a recent study drives home the importance of raising awareness of the tolls of alcohol and substance misuse now more than ever.
A Tragic Increase
New research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concludes that the number of Americans who died of alcohol-related causes during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic rose by 25% over the previous year. In 2020, there were over 99,000 documented alcohol-related deaths, including those from liver disease and accidents.
That compares with an average annual increase of 3.6 percent in alcohol-related deaths between 1999 and 2019. Deaths started inching up in recent years but increased only five percent between 2018 and 2019.
Drug overdose deaths also reached record levels during the first year of the pandemic, with more than 100,000 Americans dying of overdoses during the 12-month period that ended in April 2021, a nearly 30% increase over the previous year. The number of deaths from opioids in which alcohol played a role also increased.
Impact of Stress and Other Factors
Experts say the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic clearly played a leading role in these sad outcomes. Routines were disrupted, and support networks frayed. Stress is a primary factor in relapse for those already in recovery. Mental health struggles became more prevalent, making people more susceptible to substance misuse.
Adults in their mid-20s to mid-40s with children at home experienced increased stress as they juggled remote working and learning. Those without children, who generally drink more anyway, may have been contending with increased isolation and loneliness.
In fact, among adults younger than 65, alcohol-related deaths outnumbered deaths from COVID-19 in 2020: some 74,408 Americans ages 16 to 64 died of alcohol-related causes, while 74,075 individuals under 65 died of COVID. And the rate of increase for alcohol-related deaths in 2020 (25 percent) outpaced the rate of increase of deaths from all causes, which was 16.6 percent.
Moving from Isolation to Addiction Treatment
To offset widespread fear, frustration, and social isolation rampant during the pandemic, many turned to alcohol to self-soothe. In the first month of the stay-at-home orders in March of 2020, national alcohol sales rose 54%, and some states allowed restaurants and retailers to sell carry-out alcoholic beverages. As more individuals found themselves stuck at home with amplified stressors, minimal coping strategies, and increased alcohol availability, the frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14% compared to the previous year.
In addition, an inability or reluctance to access drug or alcohol addiction treatment during lockdowns and periods when the health care system was overwhelmed may have deterred many who needed help from getting care.
Available data for 2021 indicates that alcohol-related deaths remain high. However, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted, many can now physically access treatment centers, attend support group meetings, and connect with loved ones. As a result, researchers and treatment professionals remain hopeful that, with increased awareness and access to treatment, this bleak trend will improve.
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol addiction or a substance use disorder, call Spectrum Health Systems today at 1-877-MyRehab.