Alcohol-related mortality up sharply during pandemic

FRANKLIN -- It’s an unfortunate sign of the times. The SAFE Coalition, a substance use recovery organization, just moved into an expanded space because the demand for services keeps increasing.

“We have seen over the last two years a huge rise in adolescent alcohol use,” said SAFE CEO and Co-Founder Jennifer Knight-Levine. “Really, kids who were in middle school transitioning to high school during Covid.”

SAFE’s mission is to redirect young people from substance abuse early; new federal data suggests such programs are sorely needed. The CDC reports that alcohol-related mortality rose in the U.S. through most of the twenty years from 2000 to 2020 -- with a marked rise occurring in the first year of the pandemic.

The data, from the National Center for Health Statistics, found that alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 rose 26 percent in urban counties from 2019-2020 and 30 percent in rural counties. Overall, the two-decade period saw alcohol-related mortality rates rise between 78 and 125 percent, depending on locale.

“There’s been a steady increase over the last couple of decades for both alcohol use, heavy drinking and alcohol-related complications and most concerning, alcohol-related mortality,” said Joji Suzuki, MD, an addiction psychiatrist and Director for the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “Alcohol-related liver disease is one of the leading causes for liver transplant and we see this in the hospital all the time.”:

Suzuki suggests it’s a crisis that’s been somewhat overshadowed.

“Although we focus on the opioid crisis -- and that’s warranted, the total absolute number of individuals who require medical treatment is actually much greater for alcohol,” he said.

In tandem, with the rise in problem drinking, have come other issues, Suzuki said, including increases in suicidal ideation, as well as suicide attempts and actual suicides.

“It’s a really concerning trend because, especially in the last five to ten years, we’ve done a lot to try to address this,” Suzuki said. “But, we’re not keeping up.”

Mortality from alcohol use can arise in two ways  -- from acute injury or prolonged exposure.

“The trauma surgeons deal with broken bones and fractured skulls all the time as a result of the acute consequences of alcohol use,” Suzuki said. “What drives the mortality is the chronic complications leading to end-organ damage to the liver, the brain, the heart. Alcohol is, unfortunately, toxic to every cell in the body.”

That end-organ damage can take decades to manifest, Suzuki said. It also can be averted if patients get treatment. But few do.

“Only about 10 percent of individuals with alcohol-use disorder receive treatment in a given year,” Suzuki said.

Michael Ferullo sought treatment nearly 50 years ago for his alcohol-use disorder -- back when treatment options were very limited.

“The last time I walked into a rehab I said, this is it... I’m done,” Ferullo said. That was in 1974. Ferullo hasn’t relapsed since.

“I think that I started to feel a lot better in rehab,” he said. “Things started clicking and I just took it from there.”

Where he took it was to the streets. Ferullo started running and eventually founded the Boston Bulldogs Running Club, whose mission it is to promote fitness and wellness -- as well as sobriety.

“With exercise, you get immediate gratification: mentally, emotionally and physically,” he said.

As for why alcohol use is increasing, along with alcohol-related deaths, Ferullo has a theory.

“People are not happy,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons why people are not happy but I think it’s the idea of people not feeling connected and having kind of a deeper purpose and meaning in life.”

Still, Ferullo is noticing a bit of a ‘health movement’ when it comes to alcohol use. He said it’s becoming kind of hip NOT to drink.

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