Thursday, 18 April, 2024

Lockdown drowns some in alcohol abuse


By Aashish Mishra

Kathmandu, May 11: Nepal’s nationwide lockdown is now in its seventh week. People are out of work, businesses are shuttered and COVID-19 continues to spread in the country. And in this bleak time, people are increasingly seeking out alcohol for support.
Mahanta Maharjan, owner and operator of a local pub near Sankhamul, Lalitpur, said that his business had more than doubled since the lockdown began. Similarly, a woman at Chyasal, Lalitpur, who brews and sells home-made liquor and who did not wish to be identified, said that demand had more than quadrupled since March. “Up until February, I would brew one batch (two water drums) and it would last a couple of days,” she shared. “Now, I have to brew three to four batches daily to keep up with the increased demand.”
Prof Dr Saroj Prasad Ojha, head of department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital, believed that this spike in alcohol use was because of people using drinking as a means to cope up with stress and anxiety brought on by the lockdown.
“There is a misconception among people that liquor helps escape stress and tension which leads them to drink more in times like this,” he said. But he also blamed it on our social culture. “We have developed a concept that we need alcohol to party and have a good time. That is why people are drinking more as a means of enjoying with their family.”
But whatever the reason, such over-indulgence with booze could leave people with a problem that will be hard to shake off. “Many people will, for the first time, develop alcohol dependency,” said Sushil Shakya, an addiction counsellor at the Aashraya Samuha Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Centre (ASDARC).
An ex-alcoholic himself, Shakya knows all too well how traumatic events like the current coronavirus pandemic can lead to alcoholism. “People often drink more and more frequently in the name of coping with stress and without realising, they develop an addiction to it,” he said.
The situation is even worse for recovering alcoholics. They cannot attend their regular meetings and counselling sessions, thus, depriving themselves of support structures; emotions in the family may also be running high because everyone has been unwillingly locked inside for so long, and they are also having to deal with stress, anxiety and uncertainty like everyone else. “This means that many recovering alcoholics will relapse,” Shakya said.
Tsering Sherpa, director of ASDARC, put all this into context. “We will see an increase in alcoholism after the lockdown.”
How lockdown leads to alcoholism
Lockdown drinking is a slippery slope because heavy drinking renders the brain unable to regulate emotions properly, Ojha said. “This means that when a drinker is sober, they are less able to manage anxiety and tensions, leading them to drink more,” he informed about the vicious cycle that is alcohol abuse.
This is becoming such a global problem that the World Health Organisation has asked governments to limit their citizens’ alcohol consumption during the pandemic because heavy drinking undermines immunity, leaving people susceptible to COVID-19, and also because it contributes to mental health problems and domestic violence.
While it is difficult to determine how many drinks people are consuming on average, sales are only going up, according to Maharjan.
Signs of alcoholism
People, obviously, do not become alcoholics overnight and there are certain tell-tale signs that signal if a person is developing a problem. But the onus to see these signs falls on the family members, according to Shakya and Sherpa.
“The addicts themselves will never feel and acknowledge that they have a problem so the family members must be vigilant about this,” Sherpa said.
Some major red flags to look out for include an increase in the quantity and frequency of one’s alcohol intake, irritability and restlessness when not drinking and unable to account for one’s finances, among others.
“Much too often, families are in denial about someone’s problems, they feel that it is not possible for their child, parent or spouse to fall into addiction and hesitate to bring the subject up,” said Shakya, pointing out the main problem. “Well, during lockdowns, family members may be the only people around developing alcoholics and they must address it in the beginning to prevent the addict and the addiction spiralling out of control.”
While no one is immune from alcoholism, Shakya suggested that some family members were more vulnerable than others. “In my experience, men aged 50 and above need to be focussed on the most,” he said.
No help during lockdown
COVID-19 has made addiction help extremely hard to get. Neither the addicts nor the counsellors can get to each other. Support meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous have moved online and ASDARC is also holding some counselling sessions digitally, as informed by Shakya.
But virtual meetings have their limitations. So, experts suggest that individuals develop self-coping mechanisms. “The main thing to do is to manage stress and distract oneself from the urge to drink,” Sherpa said.
Dr Ojha suggested doing yoga and meditation to calm one’s nerves. He also said that physical exercises and activities like cooking could serve as a distraction. Sherpa asked people to make a daily routine and strictly stick to it, leaving very little free time for them to drink. But most important self-help method, as informed by Shakya, is to devote time to the family.
“Devoting time to the family helps create a support structure and helps people open up about their problems,” he said.