The U.S. House Ways & Means Committee held a discussion on mental health for the first time after about a decade. The dicsussion held on on February 2, 2022 covered the effects of alcohol on the mental health of people in the United States.
Before the pandemic, one in 10 American adults experienced anxiety and depression. Since the pandemic began that figure increased to four in 10. This is a 40% increase.
Alcohol and other substance use problems have increased during the pandemic as well, adding to increasing mental health issues of Americans. Deepa Avula, director of the North Carolina Division on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services testified to the Committee that loneliness, isolation and stress of the pandemic have led to an increase in substance use problems.
Ms. Avula stated that sales of alcohol products have shot up in many U.S. states, while bars and restaurants were on lockdown. This means that more and more Americans are consuming alcohol at home. Those with children were at an even higher risk of consuming increasing amounts of alcohol.
We see staggering rates of alcohol use. When we look at the retail sales in many states the increase was close to 40%, again this was at a time when restaurants were closed, bars were closed,” said Deepa Avula, director of the North Carolina Division on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services, as per NC Policy Watch.
So, what that means is many, many, many individuals were consuming very heavy rates of alcohol at home and often by themselves.
If you had a child, the drinks-per-day were four times higher than individuals who did not have children. It really highlights the stressors that parents were under.”Deepa Avula, director, North Carolina Division on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse Services
As Movendi International has previously reported, the products and practices of the alcohol industry in the United States during the pandemic are causing this rise in alcohol harms. Big Alcohol launched heavy pandemic-centric marketing and relentlessly lobbied to weaken U.S. states’ alcohol laws.
A direct result of Big Alcohol lobbying pressure is that almost every U.S. federal state has weakened alcohol laws in 2020 according to Boston University researchers. As Movendi International previously reported,
- In the beginning of the pandemic, 31 states included cocktails-to-go as a temporary measure.
- In 15 states the measure was extended by two to five years.
- Another 16 states made cocktails-to-go a permanent law.
- At least nine states passed laws allowing direct home delivery of alcohol.
In the U.S., alcohol kills more people than opioids but the alcohol burden receives much less political attention. Every year, the products and practices of the alcohol industry kill close to 100,000 people. This is far more than the total 93,000 deaths caused by all other drug overdoses combined in 2020.
Adding to the problem is the lack of adequate mental health care services. As Ms. Avula explained to the committee, the number of mental health practitioners declined during the pandemic. The National Council on Behavioral Health reported that 65% of its behavioral health organizations said they had to turn away, cancel, or reschedule patients.
Which solutions are available?
Ms. Avula recommended the following to address the shortage of mental health professionals:
- Loan repayment and wages that are commensurate with the work of mental healthcare providers,
- Training primary care and other healthcare providers to respond to mental health issues, and
- Increased school-based mental health services.
As Movendi International has reported, improved alcohol policy solutions are a necessity to reduce the alcohol burden and resulting mental health issues.
Research by Boston University scientists on 29 alcohol-related policies and regulations found that combining limits on outlet density with increasing taxes accounted for about 50% of the policy effects. These two policies are included in the World Health Organization’s SAFER package of the most cost-effective alcohol policy solutions to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.
- Strengthen restrictions on alcohol availability,
- Advance and enforce drink driving [driving under the influence] counter measures,
- Facilitate access to screening, brief interventions and treatment,
- Enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion, and
- Raise prices on alcohol through excise taxes and pricing policies.
As it is the mental health care sector is not capable to cope with the demand for services including for alcohol and other substance use problems. Alcohol policy solutions can go a long way in preventing and reducing the harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. Alcohol policy holds untapped potential to alleviate the high demand for mental health care services. What is needed is a concerted effort and action by both federal and state governments.
For further reading:
USA: Understanding the Alcohol Burden
Ways & Means Committee: “WAYS AND MEANS COMMITTEE HEARING ON AMERICA’S MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS“