‘Isolation and heavy drinking go hand-in-hand’: the rise of alcohol dependency during the pandemic - and where to go for support

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that alcohol killed more people in 2020 in England and Wales than in any of the previous 20 years

The Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns put into place across the UK have taken their toll on many over the last year, with some increasing their alcohol intake as restrictions remained in place.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that alcohol killed more people in 2020 in England and Wales than in any of the previous 20 years.

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There were 7,423 deaths from alcohol misuse last year, which was a rise of 20% from 2019, the figures showed.

The Covid pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns put into place across the UK have taken their toll on many over the last year, with some increasing their alcohol intake as restrictions remained in place (Graphic: Mark Hall)

Most deaths were related to long-term drinking problems and dependency:

- Around 80% of those deaths from alcoholic liver disease

- 10% from mental and behavioural disorders due to alcohol use

- 6% from accidental poisoning by exposure to alcohol.

Addiction helpline Help4Addiction saw a rise in calls during the pandemic by 500%, with the majority being related to alcohol issues, CEO Nick Conn explains.

But why has there been a rise in alcohol dependency during lockdown and where can people go for support?

‘For some, turning to alcohol, as with any substance, may have been a way of coping with the drastic change to their everyday life’

Danielle Brightman, Clinical Lead at digital men's health clinic, Numan, says the impact of the national lockdown has seen some people turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

She says: “While the national lockdowns have been pivotal in controlling the spread of Covid-19, they have also amplified feelings of loneliness and isolation, especially in those living alone.

“Everyone has different coping mechanisms, and for some, turning to alcohol, as with any substance, may have been a way of coping with the drastic change to their everyday life.”

Stressful events such as losing a loved one or job instability can also lead to an increase in alcohol consumption, which in turn “can lead to alcohol dependence,” says Ms Brightman.

The health expert also explains that those who might have been social drinkers before the pandemic may have now found themselves drinking alone, which in itself is a different experience and one which “can lead to drinking to excess without the social component.”

Jon Murray, Executive Director of Services in England for drug, alcohol and mental health charity We Are With You, said that isolation and heavy drinking often “go hand-in-hand,” and it’s therefore “no wonder the enforced isolation of the pandemic has led to some people drinking more.”

Mr Murray added: “Heavy drinking is often a way of dealing with mental health issues, with many of the people we support drinking as a way to cope with past trauma.

“People also drink as a reaction to things going on in their lives. For example, in recent years we have seen a rise in the number of older adults with an alcohol problem, often in response to life events like divorce, retirement or bereavement.

“People can get stuck in a cycle of drinking to deal with mental health issues, with their alcohol use actually exacerbating these issues in the long-term.”

‘Isolation and heavy drinking often go hand in hand’

Rob Millen accessed support for his drinking with We Are With You’s service in Glasgow at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020.

He said: “Isolation and heavy drinking often go hand in hand. It’s often a way of shutting yourself off from the world, so I’m not surprised that many people have started drinking more during the pandemic.

“As we entered lockdown back last March, I felt broken. I had been drinking heavily for years and couldn’t see a way out. I couldn’t live with alcohol, but I couldn’t live without it either.”

After Mr Millen was referred to We Are With You in Glasgow, he said that although he “was sceptical at first,” he made an instant connection with his worker, Maggie, who didn’t judge him and “made me feel really comfortable while helping me build up my confidence and self worth.”

He says he has now “thrown myself into the online support, attending groups and even running some myself.”

Mr Millen stresses that as lockdown eases and “people start to assess some of the patterns they have fallen into,” it’s important that they know “warm, compassionate support around alcohol is available free of charge.”

He said people shouldn’t worry about being labelled or placing extra strain on the NHS.”

Where can I go for support with alcohol dependency?

With You run an online webchat service where people can talk anonymously to a trained advisor. With You helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.

If you are over 50 and concerned about your alcohol use, or you are concerned about the drinking of someone you know who is over 50, you can also call With You’s free alcohol helpline on 0808 8010750.

You can also see your GP, who may suggest different types of assessment and support options available to you, such as from local community alcohol services.

You can also ask about any free local support groups and other alcohol counselling that may suit you.

Other useful contacts include:

- Drinkline - the national alcohol helpline. If you're worried about your own or someone else's drinking, you can call this free helpline in complete confidence. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9am to 8pm, weekends 11am to 4pm)

- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group. Its "12 step" programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups

- Al-Anon Family Groups offers support and understanding to the families and friends of problem drinkers, whether they're still drinking or not. Alateen is part of Al-Anon and can be attended by 12- to 17-year-olds who are affected by another person's drinking, usually a parent

- Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and a database of local support groups

- The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) provides a free, confidential telephone and email helpline for children of alcohol-dependent parents and others concerned about their welfare. Call 0800 358 3456 for the Nacoa helpline

- SMART Recovery groups help people decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery