Holidays are often a time for family, connection and shared traditions. For many of us, this year’s Thanksgiving table may have a few additional chairs in an attempt to make up for traditions and festivities that were previously limited by the pandemic.
However, the holidays are not all pumpkin pie and whipped cream, as holidays have consistently been identified as a particularly difficult time for those struggling with behavioral health concerns, such as anxiety, depression and addiction. This year, many clinicians who work within the addiction space are particularly concerned, as the pandemic has exposed an epidemic of addiction that, in many ways, surpasses the health impact of COVID-19.
During the early months of the pandemic in 2020, national alcohol sales rose more than 34%. As we all remember, this was a period of lockdown that impacted nearly all bars, restaurants and social establishments that publicly served alcohol. Some optimistic clinicians may have viewed this statistical increase merely as evidence that individuals were purchasing more alcohol due to the physical circumstances of the pandemic, and perhaps an increase in purchasing did not equal an increase in consumption.
However, shortly thereafter, medical systems across the nation began to see increased admissions for alcohol-related conditions, including excessive alcohol intoxication and acute alcohol withdrawal.
Within Vail Health Hospital, we have seen 10 times as many patients for substance use and alcohol-related health concerns than for COVID-19. The number of patients whom our hospital system has had to place on a ventilator due to the impact of alcohol far exceeds the number of patients placed on a ventilator due to COVID-19. In our hospital and many others across the nation, we recognize that although our lives have been forever changed by a pandemic, we are continuing to ignore our community’s greatest epidemic.
Given the upcoming holiday season, many families and friends have been reaching out to identify ways to support someone’s mental health recovery. Here are a few tips:
- Many holiday activities center around a focal point of alcohol. This can be incredibly difficult for those in recovery who want to connect with friends and loved ones, but do not want to use substances. Try to center activities around other health-centered activities, such as hiking, turkey trots or skiing.
- When hosting an event that does include alcohol, make sure to include nonalcoholic options like so-called mocktails.
- Wine is often a go-to host gift during the holiday season. Perhaps turn to other alternatives, such as baked treats, flowers or holiday decors.
- Normalize not drinking in every social setting. Although you may not be in recovery, your choice to grab that sparkling water over wine can help someone else in their journey.
Additionally, it is important to know where to turn for services if you or someone you love is struggling with behavioral health concerns. It is important to know that the supportive services listed below are not solely for the individual struggling with a diagnosis. Supportive services can assist families and friends understand their role in recovery or how to manage their own distress if someone they love is not yet ready to engage in change.
- AA/Alanon: There are meetings across the valley. For more information, go to VailAlcoholicsAnonymous.com/meetings/.
- Eagle Valley Behavioral Health: Find a list of local providers, including services focused on substance use, abuse, and addiction. For more information, go to Eaglevalleybh.org.
- Colorado Mountain Medical: Joe Drew is a pain and substance abuse specialist providing medication-assisted treatment.
- Olivia’s Fund Scholarship Program: This program is designed to ensure everyone has access to behavioral health services regardless of ability to pay.
Dr. Casey Wolfington is a licensed psychologist and the community behavioral health director with Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. Wolfington has been embedded within Vail Health’s COVID-19 Response Team since January 2020.