Kicking the Pandemic Alcohol Habit

The isolation and anxiety of COVID-19 created a gateway for alcohol and substance misuse. Two years later many people are struggling to reverse habits formed during the pandemic. Now we’re moving past what we hope was the pandemic’s peak. This is a good time to assess whether we need to reduce our drinking to achieve a healthier lifestyle — physically and mentally.

Nationally, we saw alcohol consumption rise 14% among adults over age 30. Among women in particular, there was a 41% increase in heavy drinking, according to a September 2020 RAND Corporation study. This is particularly worrisome since alcohol has a disproportionately stronger effect on women compared to men, due to differences in metabolism and body water composition.

Alcohol Impacts Mental Health, Too

Alcohol overuse has serious physical effects, from liver disease to increased risks for stroke, cancers, vitamin deficiencies, and more. It also impacts mental health in profound ways.

In the short term, it can lead to poor judgement, car accidents, and domestic violence. It is a known risk factor for sexual assault and death by suicide. Heavy drinking is also associated with depression, anxiety, and even psychosis.

Underlying mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression can drive alcohol misuse, as people try to self-medicate to feel better.

The first step to eliminating dependence on alcohol is realizing there’s a problem. This is not as easy as it seems, because addiction changes the way the brain works and makes it difficult to recognize excessive drinking. In addition, drinking alcohol is an integral part of American social life and is depicted frequently in popular entertainment, and the temptation to join in is difficult to avoid.

The Warning Signs of Overuse

Experts point to several key signs to determine when alcohol use has become a problem. These include:

  • A craving for alcohol
  • The building up of tolerance — in which more alcohol is needed to achieve the same effects (sometimes accompanied by withdrawal — the experience of shaking and sweats in the absence of drinking)
  • Loss of control, in which a person drinks more than they intend to and is unable to stop.

In addition, family members and friends are often a reliable source and are usually the first to notice when alcohol misuse impacts work and family obligations. Finally, a sign of problem drinking is when important life areas, roles, and duties are negatively affected by drinking and/or its consequences.

As with most health concerns, a good first step is to talk with your family doctor or primary care provider. They are trained to manage problems of addiction and can steer you to the right kind of care. This may include therapy that can help you create a practical plan to change drinking behavior, think through potential barriers in advance, and develop drink refusal skills.

Treatment may also include several services including (but not limited to) talk therapies, medication-assisted treatment, rehabilitation services, and peer support.

Take a Free Screening

Philadelphia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services has a broad list of resources for information and support. If you’re unsure whether your use of alcohol needs to be addressed, you can complete a free online screening at HealthyMindsPhilly.

COVID-19 has brought unprecedented stress to all of our lives. Two years into the pandemic, it’s a good time to check in with ourselves and plan a healthy path forward. Fortunately, just as we didn’t have to weather COVID-19 alone, we don’t have to navigate sobriety alone either.

Useful Links

If You Need Help

If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.

Mental Health First Aid Virtual Adult Training

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MHFA is a groundbreaking early intervention and public education program that teaches community members about behavioral health and how to assist a person experiencing a behavioral health problem. MHFA teaches the skills needed to identify, understand and respond to signs and symptoms of behavioral health challenges or crises. First Aid is administered until appropriate treatments and supports are received or until the crisis is resolved.

MHFA virtual trainings are best experienced on a laptop or personal computer and require the completion of both the Self-paced Pre-work AND the Virtual Instructor-Led training session to receive the 3-year national certification.

Visit the website to register for a future program session.

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Stand Together for Mental Health

The mind is the seat of consciousness, unconsciousness, and mental processes including thought, imagination, memory, will, and sensation. It is responsible for perception, pain experience, belief, desire, intention, and emotion.

Imagine this seat of consciousness and unconsciousness has been infiltrated and those processes are compromised.  How would you know? What would you do if you knew?  

Most experts agree trauma is an underlying (and often unresolved) common denominator for individuals experiencing behavioral health challenges. Trauma has an indelible impact on all of us whether from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) or traumas experienced across the lifespan.

The pandemic introduced another layer of complexity. COVID-19 forced many to operate, isolate, and perform in ways that created stress, uncertainty, and confusion.  Studies show individuals are more likely to perform better when their mental health and wellbeing (MWB) is high.

MWB is a critical part of developing healthy coping skills to manage the challenges we face every day. Mental health is defined by the World Health Organization as not merely the absence of mental health problems but as a “state of wellbeing in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community”. MWB is central to effective human functioning. 

Let’s go back to our opening questions and expand.

For many people, the first sign of trauma is a change in behavior, especially in response to something sudden. For others, trauma may be something that has impacted us over a period of time and may become part of our everyday embodiment. Regardless of whether we are experiencing acute trauma or chronic trauma, the “what would you do?” opportunities are the same: identify resources and supports to help address trauma in a healthy way.

Fortunately, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) have partnered on the Together for Mental Health campaign. DBHIDS and NAMI remind us that anyone can experience mental illness regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender identity.

It is important to recognize there are common barriers to accessing treatment, such as cost, prejudice, and discrimination. We’re not all in the same boat when it comes to moving toward mental wellbeing. We ARE in the same storm of COVID-19 and the traumas experienced as a result, but we are in different boats. 

Recognizing these challenges, DBHIDS embraced the mantra: “it’s OK to NOT be OK” and launched the “Boost Your Mood” campaign. DBHIDS provides a variety of resources to support Philadelphians experiencing trauma, mental illness, substance use/dependence, and other behavioral health challenges.

Using Trauma, Equity, and Community (TEC) as a lens to understanding and addressing behavioral health challenges across Philadelphia’s diverse communities, DBHIDS believes that regardless of the level of stress and/or trauma we experience, we can all embrace mental wellbeing and thrive. We are #Together4MH.

H. Jean Wright II is deputy commissioner of the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) where he oversees the Behavioral Health and Justice Division. He has a doctorate in psychology with focus in clinical and forensic psychology.

Boost Your Mental Health with Exercise

Mental Health Awareness Month offers the perfect opportunity to reflect on and reprioritize our mental health and wellness. As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Taking time for reflection is important; knowing what drains our energy and what gives us energy strengthens our ability to honor and take care of ourselves. I want to highlight one tool within our mental health and wellness toolbox:  Exercise.  

Exercise is an excellent tool for relieving stress, increasing energy, and promoting positive wellbeing. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity. However, you do not need to push through a session at the gym to receive the perks associated with regular physical activity. Walks around your neighborhood, opting to take stairs, and even doing squats while your brush your teeth can all provide benefits. Studies show that regardless of age or fitness level, exercise can provide some mental health benefits, such as:

Promoting happiness 

Exercise releases endorphins, creating feelings of happiness and euphoria. Research has shown that, in some cases, exercise works as well as medication in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression – and the effects can be long-lasting. One vigorous exercise session can alleviate symptoms for hours, and a regular schedule may significantly reduce them over time. 

Preventing cognitive decline

The brain typically shrinks in late adulthood, and this shrinkage plays a role in age-related memory decline. Working out, especially between ages 25 and 45, boosts the chemicals in the brain that support and prevents degeneration of the hippocampus, an important part of the brain for memory and learning. 

Physical exercise is also important in remaining mentally sharp in advanced age. A 2012 study of people in their early 70s found that those who engaged in regular physical exercise, such as walking, retained bigger brains than those who were inactive.

Increasing relaxation 

For some, a moderate workout can be the equivalent of a sleeping pill, even for people with insomnia. Moving around 5 to 6 hours before bedtime raises the body’s core temperature. When the body temp drops back down to normal a few hours later, it signals the body it’s time to sleep.

Boosting brainpower 

Multiple studies conducted on mice and men show cardiovascular exercise can create new brain cells (neurogenesis) and improve overall brain performance. Studies suggest a tough workout increases levels of brain-derived protein in the body, which is believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning. 

Supporting recovery 

Routine physical activity during treatment and recovery will help reintroduce natural levels of endorphins into the system. This helps with feeling better, but it also reteaches the body that it is capable of regulating its own brain chemistry and mood in healthy, natural ways.

We all deserve time to rest and recharge so we can be our best. I urge everyone to prioritize their own mental health and wellbeing. We won’t be effective in helping others unless we first take care of ourselves. 

Andrea Brooks is Chief Program Officer for the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS), where she oversees the Division of Behavioral Health.