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Impacts of alcohol consumption, isolation during COVID-19: health experts weigh in

Glass of wine being poured.
Posted at 4:00 AM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-17 00:26:32-04

COLORADO SPRINGS — Right now a lot of us are uncertain about what to do, what to buy, and how to cope.

Grocery stores are selling out of food and toilet paper. Alcohol is also selling fast with many stocking up on beer, liquor, and wine during this pandemic. While it's been a boost for some businesses it's also a health concern for some. With most of us not going into the workplace or being able to see family and friends it's a stressful time and people are turning to a variety of coping strategies, one of them is alcohol.

Gregor Huesgen said, "It was like Christmas in March."

Huesgen is the owner of Downtown Fine Spirits & Wines. He says it was around St. Patty's Day when hordes of people started coming through his business.

"People bought a humongous amount of bigger quantities...box wine, wines, cases, etc., so it was crazy."

Fearful of the restrictions setting in due to the coronavirus, people stocked up on alcohol.

Huesgen said, "We had lines going out the door."

According to a Nielsen study, alcohol sales were up 55% the week of March 21st. Compared with March 2019 - it's a pretty big spike. The Colorado Licensed Beverage Association agrees. The organization says there are approximately 1,600 liquor stores in the state and that many are reporting anywhere from a 12%-18% percent increase in volume of sales.

While Huesgen says things have slowed down a bit since that initial rush business is still elevated. With so much alcohol now on hand for people in their homes Dr. Leon Kelly said, "We're certainly worried about that."

Kelly is the deputy medical director for El Paso County Public Health and says that alcohol is a coping strategy.

"In times of stress like this it's really easy to fall back on some bad habits and overindulge in certain things that can really cause more problems in the end."

David Bell, a therapist and addictions counselor, said, "Things like alcohol, other drugs, access is a key thing. If I have it right there I'm more likely to reach to it and use it."

While both men say there's nothing wrong with having a drink every now and then moderation is key.

Kelly said, "It's even more important now then it is on any other time - make good decisions about what you're putting in your body, how you're handling the stress that you're under."

Stress is something we're all feeling right now, some more than others. Bell says through his own sessions and speaking with fellow counselors that "the use has definitely gone up."

He's seeing a mix of behaviors with his substance abuse clients.

"Some of them are continuing along, doing fine. Others have definitely relapsed back to heavier use and they're struggling with that...the anxiety is a big part of it and actually, just the whole social isolation piece of it."

While he isn't seeing an uptick in clients he's forecasting that "once things start heading back towards normal it's going to change...people who have gotten into perhaps drinking heavier during this period...they're having to get back into the real world."

Ray Carrington is a clinical mental health counselor for A Good Life Counseling. He primarily works with court-ordered substance abuse cases, people who've gotten DUI's or committed other crimes related to alcohol.

Carrington said, "We're seeing more relapse then we have in the past."

A big issue, he believes, is the change in external support for clients.

"You have people that are really involved in the gym, they're really involved in The Incline, and these are things that they are supplementing in their life to maintain their sobriety, and it all closed one day...the longer this goes the harder it's going to be and I'm not sure we can push back hard enough with resources."

But he says everyone in the mental health field is doing their best - trying to get more Telecare events going on and increasing availability to those who need help.

So, if you are someone struggling with alcoholism or feel like you might be headed down that road Bell suggests "rather than reach for a bottle to pour myself a drink can I do some breathing? Maybe go for a walk? Do something along those lines to calm myself down...exercise in general helps a lot. Of course, eating a healthy diet helps a lot...the connection through video, phone, whatever."

But, of course, if things escalate Bell says there are many counselors available to talk to either face-to-face or through Telehealth.

So remember this: while resources and life in general aren't normal right now there is help and hope out there, and during this time of uncertainty it's important to deal with a substance abuse problem sooner rather than later.

Kelly said, "That's as critical as wearing the mask and staying away from the virus...if we're not taking care of ourselves in other ways then that can be just as dangerous if not more."

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse counselors recommend reaching out to SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They have a crisis line and counselors you can talk to 24/7 who can help you get connected to resources. That number is 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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