Time to Give Alcohol Issues the Attention They Deserve
When we all headed home in March under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, we could feel a collective sense of fear and apprehension about the unknown: How would we manage and for how long?
We knew that, despite the wonders of technology to help us stay connected with one another, a sense of isolation could stir feelings of loneliness, anxiety and depression. We also knew that the combination of isolation and intense emotions could lead to increased consumption of alcohol and other drugs, steering some into paths of addiction and relapse.
During the past 11 weeks, the National Council has been busy advocating on state and federal levels for increased funding and providing our members with support and resources to adapt to policy changes, tool-up telehealth capacity, obtain personal protective equipment, help staff practice self-care and respond to client needs.
While responding to many of the crisis-driven needs of our field, we have also kept a close eye on what is happening more broadly across society. Early on, we noted trends in social media that announced drinking contests, new names for cocktails (the Quarantini!), celebrations of early-in-the-day and frequently occurring “happy hours,” and grocery lists that included hefty supplies of alcohol, which was corroborated by reports of momentous spikes in beverage sales.
Citing examples of previous disasters, like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, George Koob, Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), has warned us of historic correlations between crisis-related events and excessive drinking. Further, Dr. Koob reminds us of the cycle of isolation, depression and anxiety, and increased alcohol intake.
In homes across our country, this cycle is fueled by a variety of factors that include unemployment; economic insecurity; cabin fever and boredom; grief, loss and mourning; and fear of contracting the virus. This swirl of factors in our current reality has led not only to excessive drinking, but also to often-related increases in domestic violence, child abuse and suicides.
As we continue to shore up the behavioral health field infrastructure to respond to the needs of current and new clients during COVID-19, keep in mind that alcohol may play a part in their story. This is and has been a critical challenge in our field, and now is not the time to let down our vigilance.
During your client assessments and evaluations, please remember to ask about their use of alcohol. As it appears that COVID-19-prevention strategies may be with us for an extended period, we can count on people needing help for excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol-related consequences. Now is the time to prepare for the approaching influx.
To help address the challenge, the National Council is working with our colleagues at NIAAA to ensure proper focus on alcohol use disorders (AUDs) and to steer you to resources that might help as you work with your patients. Although numerous evidence-based behavioral therapies and three FDA-approved medications are available to treat AUD, these options are under-utilized.
NIAAA is working to raise awareness of the availability of evidence-based treatment options and to translate evidence-based information into resources to promote their widespread adoption and help close the treatment gap. Key examples of these resources are:
- NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator® is an online resource to help individuals and their loved ones find professionally led, evidence-based alcohol treatment near them, as well as learn the signs of high-quality care to aid them in their search. The Navigator now includes a portal for clinicians to assist them in making treatment referrals for their patients. It also provides information about telehealth options for AUD. Telehealth has become particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic because physical distancing has prevented many individuals from accessing in-person treatment.
- A core resource for clinicians is under development to provide health care professionals with essential information to help them better recognize the effects of alcohol in their patients and deliver improved care for those whose drinking may be exacerbating or mimicking other health conditions.
- Rethinking DrinkingSM is an interactive website to help individuals assess and change their drinking habits. This resource is useful among health care providers, employee assistance programs and others in sharing alcohol-related information with their clients.
- Alcohol Screening and Brief Intervention for Youth: A Practitioner’s Guide helps health care providers identify and intervene appropriately with 9- to 18-year-olds who are at risk for alcohol use, are using alcohol or have AUD. A number of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of the guide in schools, in primary care settings and among youth with chronic health conditions.
Please make use of these resources and let us know if there is additional alcohol-specific information that might help you. Finally, we always benefit from your ideas on how to collaborate with our federal partners, so please share them.