April is National Alcohol Awareness Month across the U.S., and, especially in Pennsylvania, this month is an opportunity to shine much-needed light on the rising number of adults across the state suffering from alcohol use disorder.
The COVID-19 quarantine has impacted the routines, habits, and the physical and mental health of just about every Pennsylvanian. According to Steve Koch, Clinical Director at The GateHouse in Lititz, these changes to daily life and the isolation that so many of us still feel have fueled a spike in the number of men and women turning to alcohol to relieve their anxiety.
“In the last year, we’ve seen a large increase in the number of clients coming to The GateHouse with alcohol substance abuse disorder,” Steve said. “There’s no doubt that the pandemic has played a major role.”
Because Alcohol is Culturally Acceptable in PA, Most Sufferers Don’t Receive an Intervention Until There’s a Health-Related Issue
Alcohol is rooted in the social construct of many, if not most, communities across Pennsylvania. Not surprisingly, when a national study on alcohol consumption was released in early 2020 by SafeHome.org, it found PA to be the 16th heaviest-drinking state in the country with over 60% of adults consuming alcohol on a regular basis. Interestingly, SafeHome.org takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to presenting this data, which might actually be indicative of a larger issue.
“We live in a state where our culture celebrates alcohol,” Steve said. “This makes it easier for people to hide their alcoholism. And it usually means that they’re in the late stages of alcohol abuse by the time they seek treatment at a center like The GateHouse.”
Because victims of alcohol abuse wait so long to seek treatment, he notes that their disease is usually accompanied by other health concerns, such as high blood pressure or anxiety or both, making the road towards recovery that much steeper.
Older Adults Are Driving the Spike in Alcohol Use Disorder at The GateHouse
“The majority of alcohol abuse disorder clients coming to us are older adults with compromised health issues; usually in their 50s and 60s,” Steve said.
He attributes multiple factors to the rise in alcoholism among older adults.
“I believe the cause is made up of a few factors,” Steve said. “First, baby boomers are retiring, and most are no longer working. They have time on their hands, and many grieve the loss of a career that was, for decades, the root of their identity. And this includes the loss of many manufacturing jobs in 2020 as well.”
He believes social isolation over the past 12 months and the huge impact it’s had on our collective mental health is another major factor. And he’s not alone. What he and The GateHouse have seen on a local level is also being seen across the country. In march of this year, the CDC reported a sharp uptick in depression and anxiety nationwide and a growing number of people turning to alcohol to ease that stress.
“When you inject a global pandemic into the lives of a large group of older adults going through major life changes, you get the perfect storm for alcohol abuse to take hold,” he said.
The Uptick in Alcohol Abuse in Pennsylvania Has Led The GateHouse to Connect Clients with Health Care Services Sooner
Steve is now connecting clients with alcohol use disorder to vital health care resources within the first few days of their arrival at The GateHouse.
“When a new client arrives, they’re assigned a case manager who plugs them into any ancillary medical resources they need,” he said. “Before the pandemic this took seven days, which is the state standard. Because we’ve seen such a dramatic increase in clients suffering from alcohol abuse and related health issues, we’ve cut the time down to three days. It’s taken a lot of work, but we’ve shown that the sooner we can find the right health care resources for our clients, the better the outcomes.”
After shortening the timeline, Steve and his team saw an increase in treatment completion rates. They also saw greater employment success and a greater number of clients finding secure housing after treatment.
This Past Year Has Reaffirmed Steve’s Belief in a Customized Approach to Alcohol Abuse Treatment
“A ‘one treatment plan fits all’ approach doesn’t exist when you’re working with a substance abuse disorder, including alcohol,” Steve said when describing his approach with his clients.
At The GateHouse, every alcohol use disorder treatment plan is customized for the individual client. Steve and his team created specialized groups within the program to meet the varying needs of clients in treatment.
“We have groups for anger management, relapse prevention, and others,” he said. “We start by identifying the client’s underlying need so we can address it directly in one of our groups.”
Each client’s addiction treatment plan is a living document. It evolves as their needs evolve so Steve and his team have the flexibility to shift their approach as needed.
“People suffering from any addiction disorder usually have trouble self-regulating,” Steve said. “I may have a client who needs to learn how to self-regulate in order to reduce the likelihood of a relapse. After those skills are developed, the client may need to learn how to control their anger, so I place them in our anger management group. It all depends on what the need is at any given time.”
Clients in alcohol treatment can also have trouble fitting in with the rest of the men or women in their house. In these cases, the treatment plan can include strategies for keeping the client engaged.
“Sometimes clients believe that because they abuse alcohol rather than drugs, they don’t belong in a substance abuse treatment center,” Steve said. “When they ‘compare out’, they stop engaging in the program. So, I may use their ‘comparing out’ as a tool by asking them to take a leadership role or perform a cost/benefit analysis of treatment. We tailor our approach to the individual.”
Alcohol Abuse in Pennsylvania is Still Overlooked When It Comes to Funding as Compared to Other Diseases
Despite the rise in the number of adults suffering from alcohol use disorder in the past year, funding to curb the trend continues to fall short, Steve said.
“Alcohol abuse is skyrocketing in our state, and yet it’s still overlooked when it comes to funding compared to the opioid epidemic and other substance abuse disorders worsened by the pandemic,” he said. “Alcohol abuse disorder is a very real and dangerous disease that deserves our attention and funding.”
When you and your loved one are ready to discuss a treatment plan and start to work towards long-term recovery from alcohol abuse, our team will be here ready to support you on your journey.
The GateHouse offers addiction treatment services for long-term addiction recovery with locations throughout Lancaster County, PA. We’d love to help you with your next step in recovery. Reach out to us today!