- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2023

The “fear and anxiety” of getting COVID and the isolation of lockdowns played bigger roles than infection in driving a surge in alcoholism over the past two years, a new study found.

A team of eight public health researchers published the study Thursday in JAMA Network Open, examining the electronic health records of 2,812,182 patients from January 2020 to January 2022.

They found that during most periods, there was no significant correlation between COVID-19 infection and alcohol use disorder diagnoses showing the virus had affected the brain in an addictive way.

Higher numbers of new alcoholism diagnoses among the infected during quarantine periods suggested other factors played a role, said lead researcher Pamela B. Davis, a professor in the medical school at Case Western Reserve University.

“We know the pandemic brought grief because of the deaths of loved ones, fear of becoming infected, isolation because workplaces and schools were closed, increased burden on households because children were home and not in school, day care was unavailable, and in-home help was scarce, especially for the ill and elderly,” Dr. Davis told The Washington Times.

She added: “Any or all of those factors, or other aspects of the pandemic, could contribute to the rise in alcohol use disorder.”

The study confirms “anecdotal data” showing lockdown depression played a bigger role than infection in people drinking too much, said William Schaffner, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“During the period of study, when COVID illness was more severe and treatment not as effective, the diagnosis of COVID had an even more ominous impact on patients than we doctors anticipated,” Dr. Schaffner said, commenting on the study. “Social support and compassionate caring need be emphasized even more than they have been.”

 “This study provides further evidence that alcohol consumption is likely closely associated with stress and mood related challenges, in that many people tend to cope with stress by drinking alcohol,” said clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association and Santa Clara University professor.

Other medical experts said the study shows the need for increased mental health resources during future pandemics that trigger lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing.

“I’m hoping such a spotlight means that for the future, any public health requests will be met with available mental health services, accessible to those who need it immediately,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a physician at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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