For someone struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, the holidays can be an especially difficult time to maintain sobriety.

Your Health | 6 months ago

Substance Use Around the Holidays: How This Season is Different

The surge in drug and alcohol addiction is at an all-time high, especially during the ongoing pandemic. Addiction is a disease, just like heart disease. Both disrupt the normal, healthy functioning of the human body, resulting in harmful consequences if left untreated.

Addiction is more common than many people realize. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.3 million American adults had a substance use disorder in 2019, including 14.1 people struggled with an alcohol use disorder and 7.4 million people who had an illicit drug use disorder. Of these, an estimated 2.2 million people aged 18 or older had both an alcohol use disorder and an illicit drug use disorder.

Why the uptick during the holiday season?

“Many people look forward to the holidays, but for others this time of year isn’t as joyous and can be filled with painful reminders or sad memories,” says Kelsie Pierre, MD, addictionologist with Atrium Health Behavioral Health Services. Whether it be family conflict or financial strain, studies have shown an increased number of people rely on drugs and alcohol to cope with various problems they feel are amplified during the holiday season.

According to the CDC, the most dangerous times of the year for drug-and-alcohol-related deaths are December and January.

“Set boundaries with friends and family. Don’t attend events or parties that might trigger you, cause you more stress or aren’t safe for your continued recovery in knowing alcohol or other substances will be readily available,” says Dr. Pierre.

How this holiday season is different

COVID-19 has challenged those with mental health disorders, substance use disorders and those in recovery but others have been affected too. According to this study, up to 15% of people with no prior mental health conditions have developed psychological distress symptoms during the pandemic. More people are turning to substances, including opioids, alcohol and stimulants to cope. Use of substances has increased as people deal with financial stressors, working from home and having children at home for virtual school, loss of loved ones and social isolation or loneliness. 

Additionally, some might be experiencing a more ‘normal’ holiday season for the first time since 2019 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and health warnings about gathering in large groups. This can lead to ‘overindulgence’ in various ways, including substances like drugs and alcohol.

Consider the following facts:

  • 2020 was the deadliest year to date for overdose deaths in the US.
  • According to the CDC, Over 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the 12-month period ending April 2021. An almost 30% increase from the prior year.
  • Nearly every state in the U.S. has reported an outbreak or steady increase in opioid- and other drug-related deaths.

How to recognize addiction

It can be difficult to determine if you or a loved one has a problem because drinking and smoking are common social behaviors. The fact is, you may not be able to detect addiction by looking at him, her or they. You may not even be able to recognize addiction in yourself.

General signs that there may be a problem include:

  • Lack of control or inability to stay away from substance
  • Shift in mood, attitude and socialization
  • Secretive behavior
  • Financial struggles
  • Loss of interest in activities unrelated to substance use
  • Physical effects, such as withdrawal symptoms or needing increased amounts for effect 

How to treat addiction

Dr. Pierre explains that effectively treating addiction is a very complex, multi-phased process. “Detox is a period of time during which one completely stops the use of the toxic substance and allows the body to reset to a sober state. Detox treatments can be provided in a clinic or hospital setting,” she says. “After detox, addiction treatment requires various lifestyle changes, including therapy, exercise, healthy eating and medications.”

Atrium Health is educating its patients and the community on the dangers of these substances, what it looks like, what the warning signs are, how to reach out for help and from whom. Additionally, Atrium Health offers services to those in need from inpatient medically assisted withdrawal to outpatient services. And finally, Atrium Health is training other physicians to continue to be advocates, assessing and treating those with substance use issues.

“Treatment of addictive disorders has greatly improved over the last 10 years,” said Dr. Pierre. “You can achieve long-term sobriety. We are here to help.”

Follow-up care

There is hope. Recovery works. Atrium Health can help.

  • For intensive outpatient services, call 704-446-0391 (Atrium Health Addiction Services - Ballantyne) or 704-344-3290 (Atrium Health Addiction Services - Charlotte). 
  • For inpatient detox services, call 704-304-5248 (Atrium Health Mercy). Assessments are available over the phone.
  • For 24/7 mental health crisis assistance, call Atrium Health’s Behavioral Health Help Line at 704-444-2400