I love getting calls and texts from people suffering from alcohol abuse. Not that I enjoy that someone is in pain; I do not. But I am incredibly happy to learn, in those moments, that someone I know has decided that the suffering that they have endured is enough, and that they are ready to beat the bastard back and regain control of their lives.
There have been more of these conversations lately, however, which has changed how I feel about them.
I remain unabashedly excited for the friends, acquaintances, and even distant connections who reach out for an encouraging word, or just someone to talk to. But there have been too many for me to be wholly enthusiastic. What was a sporadic conversations seems to be happening more and more. Alcohol abuse, anecdotally at least, is getting worse during the pandemic and we need to do something about it.
The data itself is a little hard to chase down, but I’ve collected enough information to confirm what was at first just a hunch: Alcohol abuse, alcohol use disorder, alcoholism — whatever you want to call it — is on the rise.
Data from Wisconsin is a good place to start for a picture of my own country:
Alcohol deaths in the Badger State have risen steadily from the beginning of the millennium, but the latest uptick is the state's sharpest one-year increase since 1999. In 2020, death certificate data show 1,077 residents died due to alcohol-induced causes, compared to 865 in 2019, and 356 in 1999.
But a quick look around shows that that data is hardly unique:
According to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), deaths from alcohol-specific causes in the UK have increased from 11.8 per 100 000 people in 2019 to 14.0 per 100 000 people in 2020. This increase—by 18.6%—is the highest year-on-year change in 20 years: a notable and worrying change given the relatively stable rates since 2012.
Data for 2021 is not looking much better, though it remains incomplete from what I can tell at this juncture.
That people are drinking more during the pandemic is not a surprise. It’s in fact precisely what anyone who has fallen down that particular hill could have predicted. Why? Because social interaction and IRL social networks are critical to mental health, while alcohol and other forms of drug abuse are, to a degree, best practiced alone. So, if you take people at risk for developing a worse drinking problem, or one at all, and leave them alone in their homes for an extended period of time, they are going to drink more. And more frequently.
The result of this is human immiseration. And economic damage, but that’s a secondary result, the off-gassing of pain into the larger market that poisoning itself to death in the name of cultural tradition, acceptance, and the generally accepted lie that alcohol isn’t like other drugs.
You often see people refer to “drink and drugs” as if they are separate categories. Alcohol is a drug, and it’s a nasty, addictive, carcinogenic depressant at that. It eats you mentally and physically until, in full control, it commands regular consumption to prevent withdrawal, and, in extreme examples, death. So you die if you keep drinking, and you die if you stop. Quite the corner to get backed into.
My solution to this was medically-assisted detox in a hospital. Which was about as much fun as it sounds, but I was blessed to have the help when I needed it. I had done too much withdrawing at home and around my city to not appreciate how much better it was with help.
Doing something about all of this doesn’t mean reverting old methods that are proven societal failures. I don’t want to ban alcohol. I’m an advocate for drug legalization generally, but I do think that we should change our cultural acceptance of alcohol use and abuse.
This is already happening to some degree. Sober Januarys are a good thing. More non-alcoholic options are a good thing. Less pressure to drink, modest as gains here have been, is welcome. And I would say that rising cannabis legalization is another boon, as quite unlike operating as a gateway drug, cannabis makes drinking less appealing and is an underground-popular method of staying off the bottle in younger sober-from-booze circles.
We could even make small steps. Like, to pick an example, ban television alcohol advertisements. I don’t hear many complaints from folks in the more libertarian circles that I sometimes run in about the banning of tobacco adverts. And yet we let alcohol sponsor things like halftime shows. It’s wild, and somewhat insane.
You might have some other ideas. I’d like to hear them.
Whatever pressures there were to rework our societal relationship with boozing in general were growing before COVID-19 shook up our world. Anecdotally things are getting worse. And data is shaping up to show that our hunch is not wrong. People are killing themselves with the bottle more frequently than before, and the human toll is immense.
We should do something about it.