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Shutdown of sobriety support groups due to coronavirus takes toll on alcoholics in Japan

An alcoholics' meeting is seen here in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward on Nov. 2, 2020. One is held somewhere in Tokyo almost every day. (Mainichi/Natsuko Ishida)

TOKYO -- Appeals from the Japanese government to stay home as a measure to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus have forced sobriety peer support groups to cancel their meetings, which has led people to fall off the bandwagon.

    It first began when the government declared a state of emergency in the spring, and the meetings were canceled. But the people who fell back into their old habits then are still suffering, months later.

    "I slipped during the (late April-early May) Golden Week holiday. It was hard for me that I had nothing to do," said a 47-year-old man who lives in Tokyo, to members of a sobriety mutual support group in the capital's Nerima Ward in mid-July. He became addicted to alcohol while under the stresses of work and his personal life, and for 14 months starting in 2018, he stayed in a rehab facility. After he was discharged, he said he attended sobriety support groups every day in various areas of the capital "to kill the time that I had been using previously to drink."

    But due to the effects of the novel coronavirus, all the sobriety group meetings that he could get to by train were canceled in April and May -- when the state of emergency declaration was in place -- and he cooped up in his home. There were support group meetings online, but he gave up because he was on public assistance and the cost of paying for an internet connection was beyond his means. Before he knew it, he had drunk 30 cans of 500-milliliter beers. His life was spared after he was transported to a hospital when a staff member from the rehab facility that he had been in came to visit him, worried about the fact that they could not get in touch with him.

    "I'm worried that if I'm not connected to someone through a sobriety group, I'll go back to drinking," the man said. "I'm scared I'll lose the fight against alcohol."

    At a women-only sobriety support group that was held in July for the first time in about two months in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, several of the 10 participants revealed they had resumed drinking. One said, "It's become a habit of mine to drink canned 'strong' beverages (with about 9% alcohol content)," while another said, "Even now, I hide from my family and drink in the kitchen." All Nippon Abstinence Association (Zen Nihon Danshu Renmei) director Yumiko Miyata looked back on this year and said, "We'd been keeping in touch through emails while the support group was on hiatus, but I realized how important it is to continue meeting periodically to stay sober."

    Sobriety support groups, in which participants open up about their experiences being dependent on alcohol and their thoughts about their drinking habits, started in prefectures such as Tokyo and Kochi, on the western Japan island of Shikoku. Now, there are at least 600 of them nationwide. In Tokyo, a meeting is held somewhere almost every day, and it's not rare for people to go to multiple meetings held by various groups day after day. Because many of the groups rent spaces at public facilities to hold their meetings, almost all of the gatherings were canceled during the span of time when the state of emergency declaration was in place in April and May.

    National Hospital Organization Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in the Kanagawa Prefecture city of Yokosuka, south of Tokyo, conducted a survey from June to August of this year of members of sobriety support groups nationwide and their drinking habits following the coronavirus outbreak. It received 2,970 valid responses.

    In a question regarding drinking between February and June of this year, at least 80% of the respondents answered that they were still sober, while 6% said that they had been drinking. When the figure was limited to women, 11% answered the latter. "Stress" was given as the most common reason for drinking, at 42%. In an open answer section, there were desperate comments, such as "I'll die from drinking before I die from the coronavirus."

    Of the people who said they were "still sober," 12% said "there were times when it felt like a real struggle to stay sober." Fifty-three percent of respondents said that their desire to drink surged when they "felt stressed out," while 38% said "feelings of loneliness" made their wish to drink increase.

    Sachio Matsushita, the deputy director of the Kurihama facility who conducted the survey, said, "There were a lot of people who stayed sober amid the coronavirus crisis, so I was reminded once again of the importance of being linked to self-support groups." Chie Nitta, a researcher at the facility, referred to the high drinking rate among women and said, "It's likely that the women were forced to take up the slack of changes in everyday life when day care centers and elementary schools were shut down, and their husbands started working from home."

    (Japanese original by Natsuko Ishida, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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