The construction site was not just Sam’s workplace, it was also where he scored cocaine. “It’s full of it, people selling drugs,” he says. The 23-year-old knew his alcohol and cocaine abuse was “out of control” but he felt no urge to stop. Then the pandemic swept through the UK, the country locked down in March and he lost his job. With no work to go to, there was little reason to limit his drinking and drug-taking.
“I was bored at home,” he says. “I’d be sneaky about it, would take the dogs for a walk to meet my dealer. I was probably taking [up] to two grammes a day.” With no wages to fund his habit, he ran up debts and, in desperation, sought a bailout from his parents, who eventually kicked him out of the family home. Their “tough love” filled him with deep shame. “I wanted to kill myself,” he says.
Sam is not the only one finding the pandemic has intensified his problems with addiction. In September, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, drawing on Public Health England figures, reported that 8.4 million people’s drinking was “higher risk”, up from 4.8 million in February. (PHE defines higher risk as those people scoring eight or more on a 10-question clinical questionnaire that assesses the dependency, amount and frequency of alcohol consumption.)
It is too early to tell the long-term impact of changing social restrictions on addictions but Alcoholics Anonymous says in the first quarter of this year, it dealt with 26,000 inquiries, compared with 19,000 the year before — followed by another 27,000 in the second quarter. The British Medical Journal has highlighted two groups in need of support — those already struggling with alcohol dependence and those on the brink: “For them, dependence will be triggered by bereavement, job insecurity or troubled relationships.”
It is not just drink, as Sam’s case shows. Analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists of data from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System shows a 20 per cent increase in adults seeking help from addiction services in April 2020, at 3,500, compared with the previous year. Inquiries to the Priory, Britain’s biggest private mental-healthcare provider, were 26 per cent higher than in September last year.
Pamela Roberts, psychotherapist and addictions programme manager at the Priory Hospital Woking, says: “Covid has accelerated a dependency that might have otherwise crept up on them over time. Social isolation, loss of control over the situation we find ourselves in, working from home, not connecting with support networks or structures — all are issues that contribute to drinking more.”
Most of the patients seen by consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell, an addictions expert based at the Priory Hospital Roehampton in London, are working from home. “As time went on, the novelty wore off,” he says, “and often relationships with partners and family members deteriorated, and people became stressed, or more bored, and began to drink earlier and the quantities they consumed increased . . . Some people became increasingly isolated, which is a feature of worsening alcohol abuse.”
When it comes to drug abuse, Campbell observes that his clients have had no difficulty meeting dealers: “The street-drug supply system is extremely efficient and doesn’t care about the law or social-distancing regulations. Dealers continue to deliver or supply from their own homes as efficiently as they always did. From John O’Groats to Land’s End, a deal is only a phone call away.”
In some cases, people are bingeing less frequently as social restrictions curb their visits to pubs and bars; the time has given them opportunity to reflect on their drug and alcohol dependency and made them seek help. Proximity to family members over long periods makes problems harder to hide too — as Sam discovered.
This was not the case for Tom, who works in the tech sector and is based in Berkshire. Having previously experienced problems with alcohol and cocaine, he found lockdown a healthy experience: “I didn’t drink . . . I’d been sober since February 2018.” That he was spending huge amounts of time with his daughter at home also helped.
Then pubs reopened. “I wanted to be normal and fit in,” he says. “It could have been the relief of being out again. I thought I was in control of the addiction. I wasn’t really accepting of being an alcoholic. It progressively took over — from a binge to a bender of days of heavy drinking. I still hid it . . . It went to a level of insanity.”
He became very ill: hot sweats and cold sweats, paranoia, shaking. “I wasn’t at the hallucinating stage . . . It was restlessness. I couldn’t sleep. You’re scared, you feel desolate. I call it my ‘infinite abyss’ . . . You don’t have suicidal thoughts, you just think, ‘It would be easier if I wasn’t here.’ I needed some help.”
So he referred himself to the Priory’s 28-day residential programme and took part in AA sessions online at the same time. “It can be a bit easier for a newcomer, you can log on and listen. You can unmute yourself . . . You can go to four or five a day. You are not short of meetings. If people are craving a drink, all you have to do is open up your laptop. In the middle of the night, you can join one across the world.”
On the other hand, he says some people are not adept at managing online meetings and “you can get lost in it all”. He is hoping to attend meetings in person where he says it is easier to forge connections: “You meet people and swap numbers to find sponsors.”
The 53-year-old now accepts his problem. “I thought I was in control, I had an ego. Being successful in other parts of my life, I wondered why I couldn’t control my alcohol. I didn’t want to be defeated by something.”
The opportunity for online sessions has been a boon for some. Laura Bunt, deputy chief executive of We Are With You, a drugs, alcohol and mental health charity, says: “We know that coming into a [physical] drug and alcohol service can be very challenging, it can be stigmatising, [there] can be a lot of shame.” The virtual support has been a source of encouragement. “It’s been a lesson for us; in future, we might offer more flexibility.”
However, some online clients lament the loss of walking out the door after a therapy session and the benefit of the journey home to assimilate what has been discussed. Virtual therapy also inhibits those without access to technology or privacy at home. Dr Emily Finch, vice-chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ addictions faculty, says not enough research has been undertaken about the effectiveness of online treatment. “There is a risk in drug and alcohol treatment [that the government concludes] that virtual meetings work — as a way of reducing funding — that is wrong.” The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that public services dealing with addictions are already overstretched and funding has been cut because of austerity.
A month into the first lockdown, Sam sought help from We Are With You for his cocaine and alcohol use. Because of social-distancing rules in Manchester, he has yet to go to the support groups in person, though he has been attending online sessions for the past six months. New lockdown rules allow in-person meetings in England of up to 15 people.
“I didn’t want to change [before] and now I want to do it,” he says. He has got a new job driving a van. “I’m really enjoying it. Money isn’t everything, I’ve learnt that. Before I needed to feed an addiction.” He enjoys his downtime — fishing, walking his dogs, spending time with his family. “I never wanted to do anything, just go to the pub, lie in bed or use [drugs].” It has meant he has had to lose some of his friends. But it is worth it, he insists. “The best thing is when your mum and dad tell you how proud they are.”
Names have been changed to protect privacy. Emma Jacobs is the FT’s Work & Careers writer
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