- Nearly 60% increase in enquiries about Priory alcohol services since before the pandemic
- Public Health England also reported a ‘step change’ in heavy drinking habits coinciding with the start of the pandemic
- Lockdown created conditions where some people, who already drank regularly, tipped into dangerous levels of consumption
- Priory addiction therapist says people opening up about their drinking can help “smash the stigma” around addiction
New data from Priory shows a significant increase in the number of people seeking help for their excessive drinking, compared to the pre-pandemic era. The year to September (January to September 2021 inclusive) has seen a 59.7% increase in enquiries to Priory’s private alcohol addiction services compared the same period in 2019*. The figure reinforces concerns that the pandemic has contributed to much higher levels of problematic alcohol use.
Public Health England (PHE) also reported that between March 2020 and March 2021, there was a 58.6% increase in the proportion of people drinking at higher risk levels . It says its data shows a “step-change around the time the pandemic began” when some people, often those who were already consuming alcohol regularly, increased their intake at a greater rate than would normally have been expected.
Speaking ahead of Alcohol Awareness Week (15-21 November), Priory addiction therapist Dee Johnson says: “I have seen a marked increase, especially in people who, pre-pandemic, were teetering on the brink of their drinking becoming problematic. The pandemic seems to have accelerated it.”
She explains that the pandemic created a unique set of conditions that could tip people into the problematic drinking zone; “From not having to get up early or drive first thing, due to working from home, to wanting a bit of a ‘reward’ in scary times, a process took place where drinking daily very quickly became normalised.”
Dee says that over time “the body starts to change its tolerance levels, and a physical dependency can be created. Two glasses of wine in an evening no longer ‘cut it’, and, before you realise, something has changed it’s a bottle, and so on.”
Alcohol misuse can cause severe short and long-term health problems. The current UK guidelines advise both men and women to keep their alcohol intake below 14 units a week; a pint of 5.2% strength beer contains three units, while a small 125ml glass of wine has 1.5 units.
Increasingly, people are willing to recognise they have an alcohol problem and do something about it. Dee believes that some high-profile individuals opening up about their excess drinking has helped break the stigma surrounding alcoholism in recent years.
“As an addiction expert, I really value the people who are publicly sharing their experiences, and no longer keeping them a shameful and painful secret. The guilt some people feel stems from outdated and inaccurate assumptions about addiction. When people, whether they are famous or not, have the courage and generosity to blow away the myths and misconceptions about alcoholism and addiction, it does start to smash the stigma.”
Dee says there are some societal misconceptions about alcoholism, which mean some people struggle to recognise it in themselves, and feel guilt when they do; “The reality is that mental health issues can affect anyone, and addiction (or Substance Use Disorder) is no different. The person drunk on a park bench, and a smartly dressed alcoholic on their way to work, have the same illness. Although their life circumstances are totally different, the consequences of untreated alcoholism could result in life-limiting or fatal conditions for either of them. So much is hidden in plain sight.
“We still have a long way to go, but the increase in people seeking help, and looking for a safe way to stop suffering, is a really hopeful sign that the stigma around addiction is being altered.”
Anyone concerned about their alcohol intake, should discuss it with their GP, who can refer them to a specialist and other services. Alternatively, Priory provides a free addiction assessment service, which can be performed remotely by telephone or Skype or at a Priory hospital.