During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been struggling with alcohol abuse due to lack of social interaction and fear of the unknown, according to the American Addiction Centers

According to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 55% of college students drank alcohol in the last month, 35% binge drank and 10% drank alcohol at heavy levels. This study was presented by Evan Gurney, a Wayne State University School of Medicine master of public health graduate student, at the WSU Campus Health Center virtual webinar on Dec. 3 about alcohol abuse during the pandemic.

Alcohol use disorder is an inability to control drinking due to both a physical and emotional dependence on alcohol, according to a study by the NIAAA. Between nine and 20% of college students meet the criteria for AUD, Gurney said. However, people who drink too much could still fall outside the requirements to have an alcohol addiction.

"Most people, even those who drink excessively, do not meet the criteria for a severe alcohol use disorder,” Gurney said. “However, that does not mean that their drinking still isn’t a cause for concern during the pandemic. Drinking weakens the immune system and lowers inhibitions, making people less likely to social distance and wear a mask, it leaves them more susceptible to COVID-19.” 

Stephanie Kastely, a WSU Counseling and Pyschological Services counselor and suicide prevention coordinator, said her biggest concern is the rising usage of alcohol as a coping mechanism against stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

“We're dealing with substance use disorders or substance use concerns. Those concerns are coming from substances being used as an unhealthy coping strategy,” Kastely said. “We're experiencing maybe more stress than we're used to handling. There's that increased risk of someone relying on substances to maybe help them get through the day.”

Regan Thorp, a junior criminal justice major who wrote an op-ed for The South End highlighting her battle against alcoholism throughout her youth, said she is sober but worries for recovering addicts in times of loneliness.

“I think that's what a lot of addicts who have gone back out are also experiencing, is that isolation. You have genetic factors that lead you down that rabbit hole,” Thorp said. “I think that this is just an unprecedented time where people just don't know how to cope with it.” 

Gurney said there are many ways to deter people from resorting to alcohol during the pandemic, but one of the most important factors is having a good support system.

“Being overwhelmed, stressed and scared are completely valid responses to a global pandemic and needing, as well as asking for, more support and help is okay —whether that help be from friends, family, teachers or from a professional,” Gurney said.

Many people are not utilizing mental health services, not only at WSU but around the country, Kastely said. This may be attributed to people not wanting to reach out remotely, Thorp said.

“Honestly, it's harder to pick up the phone sometimes than to just go to a meeting,” Thorp said.

In a 12 step recovery program Thorp participates in, things have changed a considerable amount, she said. Meetings take place over Zoom, which limits interaction opportunities.

“I really hate these Zoom meetings, but you know you gotta do what you gotta do. It's just not the, it's not the same way that it used to be. You used to spend that time talking about your recovery and then afterwards you hang out with your friends for three hours at a diner,” Thorp said.

Even though the format is different, Kastely said there are benefits to using digital platforms like Zoom because there is the potential for consultations to be more personal.

“That therapeutic rapport I have with my clients I feel is a bit more personal,” Kastely said. “With us actually being remote because clients are seeing me from their homes or their rooms, their home environment, just like clients are seeing me in my home environment.”

If students are struggling with alcohol usage, substance abuse or stress and anxiety, they can reach out to the services provided by WSU, Gurney said. 

“I definitely suggest the Wayne State University Counseling and Psychological Services because it’s free and confidential for students. They have therapists who specialize in substance use and can refer students out for other services,” Gurney said.

The CAPS counseling center will be closed Dec. 24 through Jan. 3, but if students call the after hours number at 313-577-9982, they will be directed to a fully licensed professional counselor, Kastely said. It is entirely confidential.

Other resources available include the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 1-800-622-HELP (4537) and the NIAAA’s alcohol treatment navigator, Gurney said.

“Just as there is not any shame in getting an antibiotic to treat an infection or physical therapy to deal with an injury, there should not be any shame in treating your medical disorder either,” Gurney said.

Irving Mejia-Hilario is sports editor for The South End. He can be reached at ismejia48@wayne.edu.

Cover photo provided by Campus Health Center.