British Columbia·Point of View

People are drinking more during the pandemic — including parents

From stress to boredom, many parents are pouring an extra drink during the pandemic.

Men say they drink because they're bored, women because of stress

Clinical counsellor Kuldip Gil says a lack of routine and structure could be contributing to increased alcohol consumption. (Getty Images/Imagebroker RF)

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

From "quarantinis" to zoom cocktails, the pandemic certainly hasn't been a dry one.

With liquor stores deemed an essential service, and alcohol easily available for delivery, many people have been turning to the bottle — including parents.

According to a study conducted by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction shortly after the pandemic first threw our lives into chaos, seven out of ten Canadians were, obviously, at home more. And of those people, two out of ten reported an increase in their drinking — for different reasons.

Dr. Seonaid Nolan, a clinician researcher with the B.C. Centre on Substance Use, says the reasons for increased consumption differ between men and women. 

"Women were more likely to cite that stress was the predominant reason for an increase in their alcohol consumption compared to men,"  Nolan says. "Men were reporting an increase in their alcohol consumption mainly as a result of boredom."

Registered clinical counsellor Kuldip Gill has also noticed the trend in her patients.

"People are describing a pattern of drinking more," Gil says. "The lack of routine, structure that we had to our day, stress ... all could be contributing reasons to why we are drinking more. People are developing different coping strategies." 

Sara Funk also increased her intake significantly in the first weeks of COVID restrictions.

Alcohol was an easy way for her and her husband to escape the stress and worry temporarily each night. But as the weeks have turned to months, both she and her partner are still indulging more than she is always comfortable with, and she worries how that might impact her three teens. 

"They'll be like 'Are you drunk mom?' That actually kind of bothers me where I'll actually go 'Oh, maybe they are paying attention?'" Funk says. 

For some parents though, such as Emily Wight, the past eight months have had a far different impact on her alcohol consumption. While the pandemic is not a gift, it's made her once very hectic and frazzled life much calmer and gives her more freedom. And that's led her to completely swear off her once-a-day cocktail. 

"All of the things that were stressing me out were gone. I didn't have to commute," Wight says. "Where I normally would have come home and poured some wine ... there was a little more room to decompress."

However, Wight is also quick to point out that with a partner at home, and only one child, she has more freedom to leave than many parents.

Current recommendations suggest a maximum of 10 drinks a week for women and 15 drinks per week for men, according to guidelines from the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

This is an especially difficult time for those who realize they have a problem, or who were struggling to maintain sobriety before the pandemic. With many Alcoholics Anonymous or similar meetings now reduced or only available online, it can make it even harder for someone to take that first initial step to recovery.

Don Beadle has been sober for eight years. He knows COVID has made getting help more difficult — and that is a cause for concern among people in the recovery community. 

"We have seen newcomers, I would say fewer, and that's always a concern," says Beadle. "We are always concerned about extending the hand to someone who is starting out." 

And for those who were already struggling, it's not entirely fair to place all the blame for any temptations or relapses on the pandemic, but the extra stress certainly doesn't help. 

So how do you know when it's too much?

If you look at the current recommendations, it means no more than 10 drinks a week for women, with a maximum of two per day; for men no more than 15 drinks per week with no more than three drinks per day.

So, do you fall within the recommendations? It's not where I always fall, and it's sobering to admit that.

As the mental toll of the pandemic combines with increasingly dreary and cold weather, and more isolation from family and friends, I worry that the fears and anxieties we bottle up will lead some of us further to the bottle of our choice.

Despite drinking being the most socially accepted form of substance use, it has very real and very dangerous consequences physically and mentally.

But, unlike COVID, there's no vaccine on the horizon to help mitigate its damage.