Despite remaining cooped up at home, many millennials are seeing more of their friends than they did in the pre-COVID-19 era, thanks to digital parties facilitated by platforms like Zoom and the increasingly popular Houseparty app.
Video calls and digital gatherings are one of the (admittedly few) silver linings in these times; they keep us united and connected with our social circles and offer a distraction once the feelings of isolation and loneliness start to set in. But the often booze-filled digital gatherings (parties, “happy hours,” wine tastings, and poker nights) also present the potential for a very real danger at a time when mental health may be particularly fragile.
As Canada entered into its seventh week of quarantine and social isolation, data from an Angus Reid survey revealed that half of Canadians reported their mental health had worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. There’s nothing surprising about those numbers. As the days blend together and the isolated weeks drag on – with no end in sight for the foreseeable future – it’s not shocking that some people are experiencing loneliness, sadness, and restlessness.
While some Canadians remain unemployed and lacking stimulation, others are overwhelmed with more on their plate than ever before, juggling a demanding job done digitally, with caring for babies and/or schooling young children. Some people are forced to quarantine in tiny spaces, with roommates who may not be their favourite people, or in other toxic situations. Others are dealing with sick family members and risk losing their business on top of feeling isolated.
Though the individual isolation experience varies, the post-5:00 pm routine/remedy remains the same for many young people: beer, wine, or cocktails and an online get together or “party” with likeminded friends. Now, people I know who barely drank at home have made it a regular occurrence. What many have likely discovered is that it’s easier to drink more than normal when we have free rein of an open bottle of wine or booze, or a case of beer – and in the safe and judgment-free (well, usually) space of our homes, no less. It feels even more acceptable and less stigmatized when our friends are simultaneously doing so in their own homes too.
Tellingly, a new Nanos Poll commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) revealed that 21 per cent of Canadians between 18 and 34 years of age have consumed more alcohol since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, while 25 per cent of Canadians between 35 and 54 reported drinking more than normal as well.
A change in normal routine can be difficult to navigate at the best of times, let alone with the added stress of a global pandemic and all of its countless ramifications. “People are used to a normal routine and to consuming alcohol within those routines – often at socially acceptable times and venues,” says Toronto-based psychiatrist Dr. David Harel. “But when you’re removed from a normal routine, this mixes it all up. You’re at home all day and stressed in different areas. The big issue is how people cope with the stress associated. What’s the norm in this new situation? There’s a concerning danger in making alcohol consumption a norm in this new environment in dealing with the change and the stresses associated with the pandemic.”
Turning to alcohol can mask feelings of loneness – especially when others accompany you online (there’s merit in the saying “misery loves company”) – but there’s always the risk of developing a dependence on booze to make you feel better. On the mental health front, one of the biggest problems with this is that alcohol is a depressant, so it could likely make you feel even worse mentally once the buzz wears off and the hangover sets in. Let’s not forget that alcohol can worsen other life stressors like career and relationship problems (which may already be less-than-ideal in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis).
Dr. Harel warns that young people in particular who crave a sense of social inclusion during these isolated times may partake in the online parties and drinking challenges simply to fulfill this desire. “In an attempt to fit in and not get ‘locked out’ of a Houseparty room, booze consumption is seen in some cases, and could be the ‘key,'” says Harel.
If the online alcohol consumption is becoming an issue (or even if it isn’t), there seems to be a new way to connect with others digitally in real-time every day. The options are limitless when it comes to developing a positive routine, for example, by using Zoom or other digital platforms for things like fitness or cooking classes or to learn a new hobby – sans booze.
While there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of cheersing your friends digitally, it may be a good idea to agree on one or two nights a week to do so; as opposed to making it an evening ritual.