Social Isolation – Are We Drinking More?

The social isolation caused by stay-at-home orders – while certainly necessary to stop the spread of coronavirus – can be dangerous for people struggling with substance use. Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that, even among people that can drink safely, alcohol consumption is way up; virtual happy hours have become popular, and it seems that even social distancing can’t stop the attraction of friendship and a cold drink. I’ve seen people on Zoom meetings having a glass of wine at all hours of the day; there’s even a special name for a drink alone, now—a “quarantini.” Our lexicon is full of sayings to justify drinking—“wine o’clock” and “it’s five o’clock somewhere” come to mind—and today it seems that people are finding more and more excuses to have that drink.

Is Social Isolation Causing us to Drink More?

This is supported by the data, too. According to Nielsen figures, for the week ending March 14th, sales of wine, spirits, and beer, cider, and malt beverages all went up significantly, wine and spirit sales by over 25% when compared to the previous year.[1] Online alcohol sales rose even more—by 42%. Studies also suggest that economic crises can increase both alcohol consumption and alcohol-related health problems[2], although they can also influence people to spend less money on alcohol, since they also have less disposable income.

Here are a few more statistics about alcohol consumption during social distancing:

  • According to reports, sales from some online alcohol purveyors are up over 200%[3]; the ordering app Drizly—which partners with retailers to deliver alcohol—had sales rise by 300%[4]
  • Excessive alcohol use may make some people more susceptible to illness: According to a 2015 article in Alcohol Research, “clinicians have long observed an association between excessive alcohol consumption and adverse immune-related effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia. Alcohol disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways.”[5]
  • Some experts have already seen an increase in drug and alcohol relapses due to the pandemic[6]

Our present crisis is both a health crisis and an economic crisis. People struggling with substance use are particularly vulnerable to increased drinking (or drug use) during this time, and as a recovery coach I’m already beginning to see it in my work. I can’t say for sure if more people are having trouble, but I do know that isolating at home can be a person in recovery’s worst enemy. I’ve taken many calls from people who want to seek help, but many are refusing to pursue traditional forms of recovery—and, in some cases, for good reason. Some people are refusing to consider rehab because of their concerns about their families and about the safety of inpatient facilities. Others simply believe that their substance use is helping them cope through this crisis.

Furthermore, the in-person community of twelve step meetings are, temporarily, not available. Twelve Step meetings have moved to Zoom, which, though better than nothing, is also not the same as meeting with friends and newcomers in a shared, physical space. Online meetings are simply less engaging and more tedious than in-person meetings.

Looking ahead, there may be long-term mental health effects from the coronavirus crisis, and some of those may be in the realm of substance dependence. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, Beijing hospital employees were more likely to abuse or become dependent on alcohol, as were people exposed to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Similar correlations have been found after other major disasters.[7]

More than anything, people struggling with substance abuse need community – the opposite of the isolation of addiction – and support. What that support looks like may look different today, and in the coming months, than it has before, but we all have a responsibility to make sure it’s there. Together, we can fight through this.


[1] https://theconversation.com/america-is-drinking-its-way-through-the-coronavirus-crisis-that-means-more-health-woes-ahead-135532

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0277953615001082?via%3Dihub

[3] https://www.chicagotribune.com/dining/ct-coronavirus-drinking-home-temptation-20200407-vbqfgmufibcmdkesf2y7mkq3tm-story.html

[4] https://www.eater.com/2020/3/27/21196290/liquour-grocery-store-alcohol-sales-increase-coronavirus-impact-covid-19

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/

[6] https://nypost.com/2020/03/30/coronavirus-is-causing-a-rise-in-drug-and-alcohol-relapses/

[7] https://theconversation.com/america-is-drinking-its-way-through-the-coronavirus-crisis-that-means-more-health-woes-ahead-135532

Adam Banks is a certified recovery coach and interventionist at Suntra Modern Recovery.  He received an MBA from the University of Chicago and built a company which United Health Care acquired. He learned his rigor and attention to detail from his career as an airline pilot, holding an ATP, the FAA’s highest license.

Suntra Modern Recovery provides medical treatment for alcohol and opiate addictions via video visit with medical doctors. Suntra’s alcohol and drug intervention services are available in New York, Long Island, and the Hamptons. Treatment for opiate and heroin addiction, including Suboxone treatment, can start today.

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