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COVID-19 Lockdowns Linked To Rising, Dangerous Alcohol Use

Over the course of the pandemic, experts have voiced concerns over rising alcohol use. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research suggests those fears may have merit.

"These are people that are having problems in their social life, their work, their health. It's really impacting their life," said lead author William Killgore, director of the Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at the University of Arizona.

Based on a standard screening test completed by nearly 6,000 people from April through September, those not under lockdown saw little change.

But results for people stuck at home worsened month by month, with a 200% increase in harmful alcohol use, a 300% increase in borderline alcoholism and a 400% increase in likely alcoholism.

"It really is that staying-at-home issue, and having the freedom to go out, and not having the freedom to go to work and socialize and go to the places you used to go – that lack of support," said Killgore.

Most alcohol consumption occurred among young people, males and those who had lost their primary jobs due to COVID-19. Job loss exerted by far the greatest influence.

Alcohol use is associated with health problems, psychological disorders and domestic violence.

"We are concerned about those kinds of issues as well. And we know that normally you find out about child abuse through the schools – that kids will talk about what's going on in their lives. Yet kids are out of school," said Killgore.

Participants took the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a 10-item questionnaire widely used to screen for harmful alcohol consumption. The AUDIT asks questions about drinking frequency and quantity, and about behaviors associated with alcohol dependence.

But the anonymous and somewhat ad hoc nature of the study prevented researchers from following specific individuals over time.

"When we first started the study, we didn't know where this was going, and we knew that things were happening very rapidly. We thought we needed to collect some data on this," said Killgore.

As a result, the findings only follow changes in the prevalence of AUDIT scores and changes in general, not in specific people over time.

Still, Killgore said anyone who consumes alcohol should give themselves a quick, honest self-assessment: Are they drinking more now than before the pandemic began?

"If the answer to that is, yes, they need to really ask themselves, 'Could I stop? Could I honestly put it down for a month and not touch it?' And, if the answer is no, you probably need to reach out and get some help because the odds are you're having an addiction issue."

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Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.