By Marcela Araneda
Psychologists are urging Australians to seek help for their mental health and wellbeing, as the worrying trend of increase in alcohol consumption suggests many are struggling to cope with the current isolation and anxiety of the COVID-19 crisis.
The recent YouGov Galaxy poll Many Australians are turning to alcohol to deal with COVID-19 stress shows 70% of people are drinking more than normal and a third are drinking every day. Psychologists have also observed more patients have been turning to tobacco use, online gambling, cannabis use and prescription drug abuse in the past month.
“Personal relationships come under pressure when there are high levels of drinking and add to that all the stress accompanying COVID-19 and you have a recipe for disaster. There is increased risk of intimate partner violence, sexual violence, youth violence, elder abuse, and violence against children as well as increases in the number of accidents.
“People are using different ways to cope during this incredibly difficult time. We want to remind individuals and our communities that some of these methods can cause short- and long-term harm, and that there is help available so they can stay mentally well,” Tegan Carrison, Executive Director of the Australian Association of Psychologists (AAPi) said.
Amanda Curran, Vice President of AAPi and registered psychologist explains, “People are currently drinking more alcohol due to many factors, such as lack of stimulation that we would usually get outside of our homes, increased stress particularly around finances and potential illness as well as job loss.”
“We are seeing individuals deal with work stress for those working at home, balancing work and childcare demands as well as home schooling demands. On top of that, the disconnect from social support systems such as friends, neighbours, therapists, church and family can contribute significantly to mental strain.”
“For those in recovery, the lack of access to support services is a major concern. Those who were traditionally involved in support groups such as AA or NA may not have computer access to attend online meetings, and they are particularly at risk here.”
Many studies show that to reduce risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, adults should drink less than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than four standard drinks on one day. There is also a recommendation for two alcohol-free days a week to give the body time to detox from alcohol and give vital organs a break. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm and for some people not drinking at all is the safest option.
While the health effects occurring due to alcohol consumption are manifold, psychologists are most concerned about how it affects our mental health.
“Alcohol alters your thoughts, decision-making and judgement as well as your behaviour. While alcohol may make you feel better in the moment and provide some relaxation, this will be short-lived and alcohol may very well increase your stress levels and impact negatively on your mental health if you are regularly drinking,” Ms Curran said.
Studies have shown alcohol can increase levels of depression, risk of anxiety disorder and women in particular, are more than twice as likely to experience anxiety disorder. There is also an increase in suicide for those drinking at higher levels and this is more significant for those that are drinking under the age of 18.
The impact of alcohol on the immune system also significantly impacts the body’s ability to fight off infection, which is concerning due to the respiratory risk and nature of the COVID-19 disease.
Ms Curran encourages those who are unable to control their drinking to stay connected to their support network.
“Just because you cannot see someone physically does not mean that you cannot connect via other methods. Writing letters, emails, making phone calls and video calls can help to reduce the depression that comes with isolation. You can talk to a psychologist via telehealth who can help you cope in positive ways, and even thrive.”
She also recommends staying physically active, keeping daily routines that you would have had in place prior to the pandemic, such as getting dressed for your day and maintaining structure to the day. Those finding increased stress levels can also better manage by practicing relaxation methods or taking up relaxing hobbies such as gardening or yoga.
There are online interventions available as well as telephone hotlines that you can call to talk through any concerns. A good source of information is the Alcohol and Drug Information Service (ADIS) which has a call centre and text-based service in every state.
For support such as finding a psychologist in your area or who is providing telehealth services visit: https://aapi.org.au/find-a-psychologist
For more information on current guidelines visit: https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/health-advice/alcohol.
To determine if someone is more at risk of alcohol related harms, you can use this questionnaire: https://www.mhc.wa.gov.au/media/2607/alcohol-audit-screening-tool-mk4.pdf.