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Lockdown or lock-in? Fears of alcoholism, addiction in confinement

March 27th, 2020 3 min read

“Another videoconference happy hour! I’m going to end up an alcoholic…”

“At the office, I can’t go downstairs to smoke over every little annoyance — but working from home, nobody knows!”

Whether they are tongue-in-cheek comments or anxious, existential questions, testimonials of this kind are now rife on social media.

With more than three billion people around the world living under lockdown, is it likely many people could turn to addiction while in coronavirus confinement?
Not necessarily — but many people are at risk, experts say.

“The links between traumatic stress and drug use are well-established,” said Philippe Batel, a psychiatrist and head of the Charente addiction centre in southwestern France.

“People respond in the usual ways, such as painkillers, alcohol and recreational drugs,” he said.

Elsa Taschini, psychologist and co-founder of the association Addict’Elles, says such a reaction can be expected even among people who do not suffer from addiction.

“In a confined situation, most of the strategies for coping with stress, such as sport or going out, no longer exist. But there is more and more stress. And the coping strategy that is still available is the use of substances,” she explained.

In its recommendations for coping with stress during the pandemic, the World Health Organization advises: “Don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with your emotions”.

– ‘A need for conviviality’ –

Some countries have taken drastic measures to avoid such abuse. South Africa will ban the sale of alcohol during its containment period from Friday, while Hong Kong has warned restaurants and bars to stop serving it.

In France, however, tobacco shops — a major source of tax income — as well as wine shops have remained open.

For smokers, there are simply too many opportunities to light up.

“When you are locked up, it is not the time to deprive yourself,” says Bertrand Dautzenberg, secretary general of the French Alliance Against Tobacco.

“The best thing to do is to replace it, put on patches or use substitutes, or an electronic cigarette,” he said.

“But we can also try to say to ourselves: This is a complicated moment, what can I do that is good? Quit smoking.”

Nathalie Latour of the Addiction Federation said “we have to manage this issue of craving.”

“We’re seeing an increase in the number of virtual drink meet-ups, a need for conviviality and decompression that goes hand-in-hand with alcohol consumption,” she said.

It’s important to “avoid falling into the pattern: conviviality equals alcohol, stress equals alcohol,” she added.

The longer the lockdown lasts, the more the negative effects are likely to be felt, warns Philippe Batel at the Charente addiction centre.

“Consumption can be a response to a waiting period. We tell ourselves: ‘It will calm me down and allow me to put things at a distance’,” he said.

“But as time goes by, there is less and less of a calming effect and the expected benefit shifts” to depression and anxiety induced by drinking too much, Batel said.

– Not a joke –

Deep down, people are aware of the dangers of overindulging during the lockdown, said Taschini of Addict’Elles.

“If we make so many jokes, it’s because in fact we know that it’s not really a joke,” she said, pointing to the numerous humorous videos posted online.

Taschini suggests these “stress moderators” may not fit in with other activities that can be soothing in confinement, such as watching movies or reading.

Then there is the question of how millions of recreational drug users are coping during the pandemic, when finding supplies may become difficult.

“At the beginning of the lockdown there were almost no dealers moving around, but they have reorganised,” said one 24-year-old Parisian student who wished not to be named.

“You have to order the day before, in larger quantities, but they’ve resumed business.”