Home and Dry

Much has been written in the press about how COVID and the lockdown have seen this year’s Dry January ‘cancelled’ for many people. But that’s far from the truth, says Richard Piper.

Read the full article in DDN Magazine

Dr Richard Piper is CEO of Alcohol Change UK

As I write this January is not yet over, and yet a total of 97,066 people have already downloaded the Try Dry app in order to take part in Dry January – an increase of 35 per cent on same period last year, which was itself higher than 2019. In addition, many thousands of people who previously downloaded the app are still using – or have reactivated – it.

The Dry January community Facebook group had 6,695 members on 21 January 2021, compared to 5,006 last year – a 34 per cent growth. And group members are extremely active, with around 42 posts, 1,190 comments and 3,789 reactions per day.

So why such growth? COVID-19 has undoubtedly played a multiple, if complex, role. The long-term stresses of the pandemic and of growing levels of home drinking have generated a significant jump in the number of us seeking to regain control of our alcohol consumption. There has also been even greater interest in personal health, in a strong immune system, and in learning about ways to drink more healthily, with the public-facing sections of Alcohol Change UK’s website seeing a huge growth in visitor numbers. Between late March 2020 and 21 January 2021, our website was visited by nearly 1.2m people – a 67 per cent increase on the same period in 2019.

The Dry January campaign has also ‘gone global’ in new ways this year. Our small-scale partnership in France has been much more significant in 2021, and we’ve developed exciting new partnerships in Switzerland, the USA and the Netherlands, including translating the app into German and French. People from over 170 countries now use the Try Dry app. And we’ve also boosted our marketing, both improving our approach to social media advertising and shifting our messaging away from positioning Dry January as a ‘challenge’ – few of us feel we need more challenges in our lives right now – to emphasising the lived benefits, especially the ability to help get your energy, your calm and your freedom back.

While the final results for 2021 are not yet available, we know from independent academic research into previous campaigns that 80 per cent of those who sign up feel more in control of their drinking by the end of the month and 67 per cent are still drinking less six months’ later. Those who don’t join the campaign and try to do an unsupported Dry January, are far less likely to see these benefits. Having a month off alcohol may benefit some people in its own right, but aiming for a month off as part of a well-designed behaviour change campaign is so much more effective.

Looking ahead, who knows where COVID-19 will take us and where we’ll be next January. But our planning for January 2022 has begun and we hope all DDN readers will continue to actively support Dry January, in particular by continuing to spread the message that people should join the proper campaign rather than try to go it alone.

Thanks to all of you who signpost people to the Try Dry app, not just for January, but all year round. We know that it works – since the app’s launch in December 2018, users have collectively saved over £35m that they would have spent on alcohol if they’d continued drinking as before, and have also consumed 29.4m fewer units.

The app is free and it unlocks our other free resources – coaching emails, Facebook groups – all of which are designed for those risky, heavy, habitual drinkers who don’t yet need full-blown treatment. We all want to support people sooner rather than later, before they need a treatment intervention.

So was 2021 the best Dry January so far?

To answer that, we must be clear what success looks like.
A successful Dry January is not necessarily defined as a totally dry month. That would be a clumsy indicator and at odds with the campaign’s careful, evidence-based approach to behaviour change. A successful Dry January is one in which experiential learning occurs and is embodied – that is, you feel it, in your body and your mind. People learn some – or all – of these seven things:

  1. Breaking denial: ‘It seems I’ve developed a drinking habit and it’s not easy to break’.
  2. Feeling less guilty about, and alone with, their drinking problem: ‘This is actually a much more common problem than I realised. I’m not alone.’
  3. Inspiration role-modelled: ‘Those people from previous Dry January campaigns were in my situation and are just like me, but have now controlled their drinking and are so much happier and healthier. Maybe that could happen to me.’
  4. Specific insights, making the subconscious conscious: ‘I’ve learned the triggers and associations – times, people, places, feelings – that particularly prompt me to drink.’
  5. Self-efficacy: ‘I’ve learned techniques for beating these triggers, overcoming cravings, and dealing with specific situations.’
  6. Seeing an alternative: ‘Watching TV, cooking a meal, relaxing, having fun and so on can all be done without alcohol.’
  7. Wanting that alternative, long-term: ‘Life in control of alcohol feels desirable and I want it long-term.

The invisible

Family members are the hidden victims of lockdown substance use, warns Adfam

Viv Evans
‘One in ten of us are coping with a loved one’s drug or alcohol problem. Yet their needs are often forgotten when we talk about the impact of the pandemic…’ VIVIENNE EVANS

The latest lockdown will be extremely difficult for the 5m people struggling to cope with a loved one’s drug or alcohol use, Adfam has warned. More than four fifths of adults dealing with a loved one’s alcohol or drug problem said the first lockdown had ‘made a bad situation worse’, according to the charity’s Families in Lockdown survey (DDN, July/August 2020, page 5). Almost half of those surveyed said that their loved one’s substance use increased during the first lockdown, with 50 per cent of respondents feeling more anxious or stressed, almost 30 per cent reporting suffering more verbal abuse than usual, and 13 per cent feeling more concerned for their own safety.

The time has come for a ‘national conversation’ to alert the world to the impacts of drug and alcohol use during the pandemic, the charity states, with children suffering disproportionately. Many are missing the support they would normally get from other family members and from school, while the stigma attached to a loved one’s substance use means many are reluctant to speak out or seek help.

Among the quotes from family members in touch with Adfam are ‘Lockdown has been horrible. A nightmare. The system needs to change – it’s been horrendous getting support’; ‘The lockdown has been horrific – the only way I can describe it is that it is like being held hostage in your own home. I wake up nervous of what his mood is going to be like,’ and ‘It’s affecting me and my children more than usual – we have nowhere to go to get away.’

‘Lockdown is like a tinderbox for families dealing with a loved one’s alcohol or drug problem,’ said Adfam chief executive Vivienne Evans. ‘When you are already isolated, stressed or fearful, our research shows that lockdown takes an even bigger toll on you. A staggering one in ten of us are coping with a loved one’s drug or alcohol problem. Yet their needs are often forgotten when we talk about the impact of the pandemic, because the problem is so hidden. With more support available from charities online during this lockdown, it is vital that people seek help when they need it. We want to say to people – you deserve help and support as much as the person with the substance issue. Please don’t feel you have to suffer in silence.’

A 2019 YouGov poll revealed that at least 5m people in the UK are affected by the alcohol or drug problem of a family member or friend.

Adfam has launched a fundraising appeal #Forgotton5million to increase the support that it can offer online, with details at adfam.org.uk

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