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Mike Davis shares findings from TaskForce’s demographic survey which shows how COVID-19 has prompted growing demand for drug and alcohol counselling services and led to a rise in the number of people facing unemployment, economic disadvantage and poorer mental health. 

The onset of COVID-19 has had a significant impact on all Victorians. However, the impact on vulnerable Victorians experiencing a range of pre-existing social and health issues has been somewhat under-explored.

Increasing alcohol and drug counselling focus

Our service mix also changed showing a sharp increase in the amount of services focused on alcohol and drug counselling. Activity went from a range of 20 to 30 per cent pre-pandemic to between 60 to 80 per cent mid-pandemic. This represents an approximate 100 per cent increase in demand.

This is reflective of general community trends, showing an increase in drinking and drug use during COVID-19. This may also reflect our client’s challenges in responding to the circumstances of COVID-19, which have included job losses and insecurity, education programs put on hold and increased social isolation, stress, anxiety and financial hardship. These are all factors which may have contributed to excessive drinking and drug use.  

Seeing more younger clients

During COVID-19 we observed an increase in the percentage of younger adult clients attending our services (25 to 34). Pre-pandemic this ranged between 20 and 30 per cent of clients and this jumped to 30 to 40 per cent of clients mid-pandemic reaching a peak of 64 per cent of clients mid-August. 

In early August, 73 per cent of clients visiting were under 34 years of age as opposed to this averaging between 50 to 55 per cent pre-pandemic. 

This trend toward youth might reflect the general trend toward increased alcohol purchase and daily consumption since the onset of COVID-19. Recent FARE polls indicated that 20 per cent of people were purchasing more alcohol during COVID-19 and 34 per cent of this group are now drinking daily. 

This demographic may also be particularly impacted by economic uncertainty, lower-skilled, less secure and less well-remunerated jobs. 

Our clients are experiencing poorer subjective mental health and wellbeing

The proportion of our clients experiencing poor psychological health of four out of 10 or less has increased from pre-pandemic levels. Pre-pandemic this was about 35 per cent of our clients and since the onset of COVID-19 has risen to 55 to 65 per cent of our clients. 

Summary

TaskForce as a wraparound service provider works with a wide range of clients facing various health and social issues. Our clients are particularly vulnerable to a crisis such as COVID-19. 

The current COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the growing demand for drug and alcohol counselling services, particularly for younger clients, that are remote, flexible and client-centred.   

We are also concerned to see the sharp rise in the number of our clients who are facing unemployment and economic disadvantage in addition to generally poorer mental health. 

Understanding these trends in service use and how our clients are feeling can help us to better respond to client needs and build a more resilient wraparound care model that is well prepared for future system challenges. 

These findings can also serve to identify policy and funding gaps, where greater resourcing could be dedicated to support vulnerable Victorians battling substance abuse issues. 

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The COVID‐19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on every aspect of our lives, including the way we drink alcohol. The Australian Government has implemented strict social distancing measures to contain and prevent the spread of the virus, including requiring all food and drink premises to close or only offer takeaway and home delivery. New South Wales (NSW) Liquor and Gaming has responded to these measures by temporarily relaxing liquor licensing restrictions to allow any licensed premises, including restaurants, cafes and small bars, which do not usually have the authorisation to sell alcohol for off‐premise consumption, to sell alcohol for takeaway and home delivery. Similar measures have also been introduced in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia.

With families already under financial and psychological stress as a result of the pandemic, increased alcohol use at home has the potential to exacerbate problems further. Harmful alcohol use is linked to a range of negative effects in families, from adults modelling poor drinking behaviours to children, to domestic violence and child neglect. According to data from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, around 30% of recorded domestic violence‐related assaults in 2019 were flagged by NSW Police as alcohol‐related. Harmful alcohol use by carers is also a factor in an estimated 21–54% of child abuse and neglect cases in Australia, with alcohol more likely to be involved in more serious cases

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Evidence indicates associations between exposure to mass traumatic events and increased alcohol consumption and related harms following the crises. However, there is limited evidence available to inform alcohol policies during such events. In this commentary, we present the range of government actions to control public access to alcohol during the novel coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic in provinces and territories across Canada. Liquor retailers, including both private and government-run retailers, have been designated as essential services in all jurisdictions, operating under an evolving set of rules. From a public health perspective, keeping liquor retailers open during pandemic-related lockdown restrictions is a delicate decision which poses new risks and considerations about the best strategy for minimizing alcohol-related harms. We discuss the need to strike a balance between supplying public access to alcohol, particularly to those living with dependence, and unintentionally sending the message that alcohol is essential in our lives and encouraging consumption. Given the far-reaching effects of alcohol on health, social, psychological, economic, and work safety outcomes, we describe international guidance for minimizing alcohol-related harms and suggest that a nuanced and evidence-informed discussion about the considerations and impacts of alcohol control measures during a public health emergency should be undertaken.

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When Jessica Birch says "make or break" she really means it. 

If these accommodations aren't made, she could be in bed for days recovering. 

The 34-year-old has Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a lifelong, permanent and debilitating disorder which is caused when alcohol crosses the placenta to the developing baby during pregnancy.

Jessica's many symptoms include chronic fatigue, a sleep disorder, heart rate, digestion, and sweat glands that function erratically and problems with her autonomic nervous system. But the reality of what that actually looks like in everyday life, is where people struggle to understand 

"I need a lot of brainpower to perform basic tasks. If someone is trying to speak to me while I am making a coffee, for example, it becomes very difficult to make the coffee. I can't respond to someone and process what they are saying, if I am doing something else," Jessica explained. 

"I can't drink water from a water bottle and walk at the same time. Sometimes it may take 20 seconds for me to actually register what is being said to me," she added.   

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The Pregnant Pause Community Heroes campaign launched this week encouraging ACT businesses and organisations to join a growing network that supports mums-to-be in having alcohol-free pregnancies.  

Pregnant Pause — an initiative of FARE, supported by the ACT Government — is a thriving community of pregnant women and their partners, support people, families and friends, focused on support and awareness that there is no safe amount, no safe time and no safe type of alcohol during pregnancy

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