It’s week four of sheltering-in-place. The days have long since blurred together. I’ve learned to deduce the time of day based on the contents of the cup I am slowly sipping from. The fact that it still holds coffee suggests it’s not the afternoon. Can having a “few” drinks to pass the time be considered “deviant” behavior? Possibly? Do I feel those pangs of shame that my criminology professors said would accompany breaking social norms? Not really. Perhaps I should since April is National Alcohol Awareness month which seeks to bring attention to unsafe or unhealthy drinking habits. However, it is not too unusual to use alcohol to cope with stressful and uncertain circumstances—for example, a pandemic.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
But here is the thing I find the most interesting, even if we were not all doing our parts to meet social distancing mandates and stay-at-home orders right now, I don’t imagine that our reaction to boredom-induced drinking would be all that negative. Perhaps the most we would get is some mild disapproval or silent judgement. But certainly not shock, outrage, or moral indignation. Certainly not to the extent I would expect had I said isolation was leading the nation to the misuse and abuse of some other drug. There are many reasons why alcohol has enjoyed the degree of normalization it has—too many to list here—but the point is, that the stigma does not reflect the actual risk. This disparity would not be remarkable—perceptions often fail to reflect reality—if not for the fact that some other drugs are shown to be relatively less harmful but have been traditionally more stigmatized and criminalized.
I should be clear; I do not seek to start a debate about the scariest or the “worst” drug, or the appropriate amount of stigma each drug deserves. Rather, my goal is to encourage everyone to remain mindful about their consumption even if it seems like “normal” behavior. As regular life continues to be disrupted and alcohol sales surge during these unusual circumstances, it can be all too easy to develop unhealthy habits. One study roughly estimates that one in three people are consuming alcohol while working from home during this period of self-isolation. Liquor stores being considered “essential” in many states is also telling. Ironically, excessive alcohol use potentially weakens the immune system, which seems a little counterproductive and all the more reason to remain mindful.
Further, while being forced to stay at home is a minor annoyance, for some it means being isolated. Victims isolated with their abusers. Addicts isolated with their drugs. The depressed isolated with their illness. Alcohol can and will negatively contribute and exacerbate all of these issues to some unknown degree. Worse, many are concerned about a very real risk that victims will be less able to seek and receive help while our collective attention and resources have been diverted to social distancing and addressing the current crisis. During National Alcohol Awareness month, take the time (you probably have plenty of it) to check in on your friends and family to make sure that victims of alcohol misuse and abuse do not go unnoticed.
I hope everyone is staying both healthy and safe.
American Addiction Centers 1-888-685-5770
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-422-4453
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
John M. Eassey, PhD, is a Senior Quantitative Methodologist in the Justice Programs Office, within the School of Public Affairs at American University.