Pandemic and alcohol abuse

Parishes can help with crisis

Last week, Eric Ulrich, a New York City Council member, shared publicly that he suffers from alcoholism. In a Facebook message to his constituents, which was reported in the New York Post April 16, Ulrich said the addiction was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has affected people in different ways,” Ulrich wrote. “What used to be mainly a social activity and a way to cope with stress, has now become far too frequent and self-destructive. … I have decided to finally quit and get sober.” 

Ulrich is not the only person who struggles with alcohol addiction, especially during the last year.

The Jackie Nitschke Center, an addiction treatment center in Green Bay, reports that it is experiencing a dramatic increase in calls and referrals for its treatment programs.

“It’s been well documented that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased depression, anxiety and substance use,” said Tina Baeten, clinical supervisor at the Jackie Nitschke Center, in a press release. “In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 13% of Americans started or increased substance use as a way of coping with the stress of the pandemic.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Human Services, Wisconsin leads the nation in many of the alcohol addiction/abuse statistics:

  • Wisconsin ranks second in the United States for adult binge drinking.
  • Wisconsin residents in every age group engaged in more binge drinking than the U.S. median for their age group.
  • Wisconsinites, ages 18 to 24, had the highest proportion of binge drinkers.

Larry Connors, CEO of the Jackie Nitschke Center, said that the pandemic was a recipe for alcohol abuse. 

“Addiction is often a disease of isolation, and the pandemic, with the need to social distance and other changes, puts many people at risk, including those in recovery,” he said. “It’s not surprising that, as we come out of the pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in calls and referrals.”

April is Alcohol Awareness Month. It is also an opportunity for parishes to consider ways they can help members who struggle with alcohol addiction.

In a pastoral letter written in 1990, the U.S. bishops said the Catholic Church has a role in helping its members who struggle with substance abuse.

“Every parish should be reminded that chemical dependency tears at the fabric not just of family and community, but of our faith community as well,” they wrote.

How can parishes begin to address addictions?

  • First, make people aware of the resources that are available to them and that the church wants to help.
  • Provide posters, pamphlets and brochures from Al-Anon, Alateen, Alcoholics Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics at church entrances.
  • Address the topic at appropriate times, such as during homilies, prayers of the faithful and announcements at the end of Mass.
  • Have parish staff attend an open meeting for Alcoholics Anonymous or invite AA representatives to speak to parish leaders.
  • Integrate the topic into outreach programs such as marriage preparation and religious education.

Once parishioners, both adults and children, see that the parish is serious about offering help, people whose lives have been scarred by addictions may be willing to come forward.