Pandemic drinking due to isolation and stress fueled a wave of accelerated alcohol dependence.
According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 1 out of 6 American adults binge drinks regularly, with 25 percent doing so weekly. A new study by researchers at Cedars-Sinai revealed that mortality rates from alcohol use disorder were 25 percent higher than projected in 2020 and 22 percent higher in 2021.
In an insightful one-on-one interview, HEALTH Center for Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention founder, Dr. Ezemenari Obasi sits down with Houston Public Media reporter Matthew Harab to frankly discuss some of the risks of heavy drinking, the co-occurring mental health issues that are linked to alcohol use disorder and the most effective and affordable ways to get treatment.
Houston Public Media’s Matthew Harab: Alcohol related deaths are up over 25 % over the last couple of years. A lot of the data is related to pandemic. What are the most meaningful data points that you have seen?
HEALTH-RCMI's Dr. Ezemenari Obasi: Some of it is just looking at specific increases in mental health symptoms whether it might be issues of depression or anxiety, or the issues that people are suffering as a function of inflation. This could include issues of food being more expensive, or just people just having a tough time trying to get by. This is one of the reasons why I focus on those (co-occurring) issues. All of those entities create more stress, and people must figure out more ways to cope. Alcohol consumption is an easy way to mask those internal hurts that people are struggling with.
Listen to the full interview here
Houston Public Media’s Matthew Harab: Let’s say people are struggling with coming out of addiction that started during the pandemic. They may be confused by what’s happening, why they are dependent upon things that they have not been dependent upon before. What’s your best advice for stuff like that? What’s your best for situations like that? What kind of care is best for someone whose addiction started in 2020?
HEALTH-RCMI's Dr. Ezemenari Obasi: That’s a good point. If we look at alcohol use, we can look at folks who were drinking before the pandemic but maybe didn’t have an addiction or a disorder that was diagnosable. Within just that group, we’re actually seeing an increase of 20-25 percent of alcohol abuse during the pandemic. And so, if you think about what alcohol abuse consists of—whether it’s binge drinking or heavy drinking, you’ve significantly increased the likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Once you are in that space, then you start thinking--how do I get help? Sometimes you can open up to a family member or a friend to start that conversation, but that only goes so far. That’s when you need to have engagement with a professional—whether it’s a psychologist or whether it’s a psychiatrist. It’s about figuring out ways of doing many things which might include working with psychiatrist to get medication treatment, or working with a psychologist, social worker or some sort of licensed counselor that can help you can gain skills through methods like cognitive behavioral therapy.
It might also include working within a support group approach—whether it is a support group that is just with you with others that are trying to work with your recovery or also support groups that include some family members and friends so that they could also figure out ways to support your sobriety.
Houston Public Media’s Matthew Harab: What are some of the better ways people can suppress cravings? What are some good things to try and focus on when it comes to shifting to how you automatically think about when a craving comes up?
HEALTH-RCMI's Dr. Ezemenari Obasi: There are various strategies from a mental health standpoint. Some folks talk about ways in which you can stop a cognitive process and redirect your attention to something else healthier. Something else could be engaging in exercise, yoga, deep breathing exercises, or mindfulness strategies that essentially can distract yourself from those cognitions that are constantly getting you to ruminate about having another drink.
Rumination is actually one of the primary symptoms of a person who may be suffering from alcohol use disorder--when they cannot really think about things that are critical at that moment in time. They are just obsessed about that next drink, but then maybe it comes at the risk of other more pertinent responsibilities--like running a family, or going to work, or going to school.
Houston Public Media’s Matthew Harab: What can you tell me about the local level right here in Houston that you have seen when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse?
HEALTH-RCMI's Dr. Ezemenari Obasi: I think it’s (alcohol abuse) extremely triggered by the pandemic. Often, we want to get into that narrative that the pandemic is over. And when you look at some of the pandemic data, you are seeing the death rates that are mirroring a year ago—and that’s only with a fraction of the states that are reporting it. I bring that up to say that the issues associated with stress, depression, and anxiety—even not being able to engage with pleasurable activity are at a high in Houston.
So often we turn to things like alcohol and other drugs, because they’re very quick acting, but we don’t think about the long-term consequences especially with alcohol consumption. Alcohol use can affect your mouth, heart, pancreas, your bones, your liver, pancreas, gastrointestinal issues. There's so much that can happen downstream, and you’re not thinking 5 years down the road or even 10 years down the road. You’re not thinking about the chronic diseases that can come from this.
Houston Public Media’s Matthew Harab: What about demographically? What have we seen in terms of demographic data?
HEALTH-RCMI's Dr. Ezemenari Obasi: This is pretty interesting. Some of the biggest rates that we are seeing is (drinking) among college students. We’re looking at binge drinking upwards of 40 percent among college students. When we think of binge drinking or heavy drinking, it has a reverse trend that we might see in other issues. Folks coming from affluent families are engaging in these risky drinking behaviors at much higher rates.
When we think about some of the more vulnerable communities, one of the challenges is less so the amount that is being consumed. With folks in African American communities, the alcohol consumption levels are low compared to national standards. However, when you look at biology, lack of access to care, they become more at risk for some of the negative health consequences that go along with it.
Houston Public Media’s Matthew Harab: For those people who don’t have insurance, for those people who do not have the financial means to get the care they need, what are some of the better options for them?
HEALTH-RCMI's Dr. Ezemenari Obasi: There is a range of options. One of the options is just being able to find a support group, and that could be free. This could be family, friends, or spiritual leaders. Folks who you can surround yourself with and help you get issues that are bothering off your chest. Because often, when we think of alcohol or drug use, it is really masking something else that we have not found an outlet to address.
If we go on to some of the federal organizational websites, like CDC, NIH or SAMSA, there are toolkits that could be downloaded that can give you behavioral and cognitive strategies for addressing these things at no cost. When we think of some of the current science that’s being developed within our HEALTH Center of Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention at UH, we’re developing app-based platforms. People could just download an app and figure out ways of managing transdiagnostic vulnerabilities.
Whether it’s dealing with stress symptoms or anxiety symptoms, you can get quick feedback on how to deal with this from a cognitive or behavioral standpoint. The feedback will be helpful in order to reduce the urge to need alcohol as the only outlet for coping. As scientists, we are trying to figure out ways of getting around this financial gap, so that all those who need help can get it.
Dr. Ezemenari Obasi
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