There’s another distinct reason the pandemic may be pushing people to drink. In an October 2020 paper published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, authors Dawn E. Sugarman PhD and Shelly F. Greenfield MD, MPH argue that while alcohol use is a common coping strategy for stress and there have been historic increases in alcohol use following other traumatic events like September 11th, this collective pain is different.
“What is unique about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it is much longer lasting and universal,” says Greenfield, director of the Alcohol, Drug, and Addiction Clinical and Health Services Research Program and the chief academic officer for McLean Hospital, the largest psychiatric affiliate for Harvard Medical School. “We are also seeing increases in alcohol use due to social isolation. In the U.S., people are experiencing the associated stress and anxiety for longer periods of time and we do not know the full impact that this will have on population-wide rates of alcohol use and alcohol use disorders.”
For Whitaker, the ongoing fallout hasn’t been surprising. “We as a society are not good with suffering,” she says. “We are told we can purchase away our pain, there’s always something to buy or something to do to not be with ourselves and I think that’s only increasing.” While the Big Tobacco heyday relied on traditional marketing methods of media and advertising, Whitaker says the proliferation of social media—platforms where users encourage each other to buy into the glamour of drinking—has made Big Alcohol’s job a breeze, particularly during this stay-at-home era. “Now we have this exponential marketing power of consumers showing that they are using this specific substance,” she says. “On top of that, we’re supposed to sweep our ugly bits under the rug and only promote the highlight reel.”
At the start of the pandemic, Whitaker says traffic to Tempest increased by 400 percent, and the bump in volume has steadily stayed up over the course of the pandemic. “But I think that we’re gonna see a lot more on the tail end of it,” she says. “Right now we’re still in the ‘drink at it’ phase.”
Whitaker’s methods are a departure from traditional 12-step programs she says were developed for a heterogeneous group. The digital recovery program is intended for people who don’t necessarily identify as alcoholics, and the eight-week digital course is tailored to each client, with a focus on the unique needs of women and minority groups. While Tempest has offered LGBTQ+ and BIPOC support groups for several years (in addition to newer groups for women over 50, parents, and other populations), the organization is actively working to expand its offerings and take into account the specific obstacles of various communities. “One issue is that [Tempest] was created in my image, so it’s centered in whiteness, and we’ve been working on decentering that for a while,” Whitaker says, noting the addition of BIPOC staff members, the expansion of online community channels, and the continued work to customize offerings for people with disabilities as well.