State and private sectors may not be prepared for alcoholism fallout caused by lockdown

23 April 2020 - 14:19
By Andisiwe May
If you're an alcoholic and suddenly stop drinking without medical help, the results can be severe.
Image: 123RF/Josep Curto If you're an alcoholic and suddenly stop drinking without medical help, the results can be severe.

With a week to go in the 35-day lockdown in SA, internationally accredited addictions counsellor Gareth Carter says people with moderate to severe alcoholism may experience withdrawal and need medical attention that the state and private sectors are not prepared for.

Carter, founder of the WeDoRecover psychiatric clinic, alcohol and addiction rehab facility based in SA and the UK, spoke to SowetanLIVE's sister publication TimesLIVE about the physical and psychological effects the liquor ban could have on addicted individuals who are not receiving medical help.

Carter, who himself battled addiction, has been clean and sober for 27 years. He started the facility to help people find the most appropriate treatment for their addictions.

“If you're an alcoholic and suddenly stop drinking without medical help, the results can be severe. Alcohol withdrawal can kill you,” Carter said.

Alcohol is a depressant, it slows down brain function and over time, your central nervous system adjusts to functioning with alcohol.

“Your body has to work harder to keep the brain functioning properly and if the alcohol suddenly stops, your brain remains in this hyped-up state. That’s what causes withdrawal,” he said.

Mild withdrawal symptoms can range from high blood pressure, fever, a faster heartbeat and heavy sweating. Severe withdrawal can include hallucinations for 12 to 24 hours and seizures within 48 hours after your last drink.

The screening process for admission to rehab revolves around two factors — funding and appropriateness.

“Most medical aids in SA will cover 21 days of inpatient rehab. Different facilities will treat varying degrees of addiction severity and mental health problems. Each patient needs to be screened and sent to an appropriate rehab for their specific needs,” said Carter.

He says that this takes time and there may be a waiting list. People going through withdrawal due to lockdown may have their admission further delayed due to clinics screening for Covid-19 to protect their existing patients.

Carter says that the government hasn't considered that the many people who will go into withdrawal don't have a medical aid and can't afford private treatment.

“In much the same way as we're slowing the corona curve because if everyone got sick with Covid-19 at the same time we just wouldn't have the beds, staff or equipment capacity at hospitals, addiction treatment is the same. Even if all addiction treatment beds in SA were made available for anyone who wanted to get rehab, we'd not have the bed capacity to detox and treat all the alcoholics at the same time,” he said.

Several liquor stores have been looted during the Covid-19 lockdown in what experts deem has been done out of “pure desperation”. And HeraldLIVE reports that Eastern Cape house of traditional leaders chairperson Mwelo Nonkonyana has received reports that desperate people have even resorted to drinking hand sanitiser.

Carter warns that people living with individuals with moderate to severe alcoholism should be aware of the behaviours they exhibit.

“A dual diagnosis is common among addicted people. This means that in addition to having alcoholism, many patients have social anxiety, depression or similar mental health issues. Without comprehensive treatment addressing all the patient's needs, rehab is likely to be unsuccessful,” he said.