Since Feb. 1, thousands of Quebecers have temporarily set aside their favourite beers, wines and cocktails as part of the Défi 28 jours sans alcool (28-day alcohol-free challenge). The annual tradition began nine years ago as a fundraiser for the Fondation Jean-Lapointe, a Montreal-based nonprofit that works with youth to prevent substance abuse, and has since taken on a life of its own as people across the province have taken up the challenge – either going a full month without drinking (the “gold challenge”), choosing not to drink during the week (the “silver challenge”) or giving up drinking on weekends (the “bronze challenge”).
As the first wave of the pandemic hit Quebec in March 2020 and businesses deemed non-essential were forced to close, Premier François Legault announced that liquor stores would remain open. Several reasons were given for this decision, and one was stress relief. “People should go for walks to reduce stress, but sometimes a glass of wine may also help,” Legault said at the time. A series of surveys done over the course of 2020 by the Canadian Mental Health Association suggest that one in five Canadians, including nearly 30 per cent of parents with children at home and 21 per cent of Quebecers, drank more often to cope with pandemic-driven stress and anxiety.
Geneviève Desautels is director general of Éduc’Alcool, an established Quebec nonprofit that promotes alcohol use education. She says the initial spike in alcohol use in Quebec appears to have subsided over the past year. “By the time we got to fall 2021, [our surveys showed] a return to pre-pandemic levels of drinking, but obviously the context has changed, and people who used to drink in bars are drinking at home. Our surveys show that two-thirds of Quebecers’ alcohol use habits are unchanged since before the pandemic; of the remaining third, half have increased [their drinking] and half have decreased it. Some people have taken advantage of the pandemic to rethink their lifestyles, but for others, it’s easier to have another glass.”
She and other experts say making a conscious choice to reduce alcohol use can have mental health benefits. “The key question is why a person drinks,” she says. “If you’re drinking at home because you’re cooking more at home and you like a glass of wine with a nice meal, then good for you. If you’re drinking because you’re stressed, you may be on a slippery slope.”
Dr. Leslie Buckley is chief of addictions at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). She says the pandemic created a “perfect storm” for the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism. “There is added financial and health stress, a limitation on social activities, a breakdown in structure caused by working from home or by not working, and the whole blurring of weekdays and weekends. When people are under stress, they rely on coping mechanisms, and some are healthy and some are not.”
Buckley says the benefits of scaling back alcohol consumption include better sleep, improved mood and increased energy and concentration. While a drink may seem to take the edge off, Buckley says drinking can raise a person’s risk for depression and anxiety.
For those trying to scale back their drinking to improve their mental health, Buckley and Desautels suggest alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and monitoring your drinking habits. Buckley also suggests making weaker cocktails, and blocking off alcohol-free days and week during the year, not just in February.
“Talk to your doctor if you are drinking above the low-risk drinking guidelines – 10 drinks per week for women and 15 for men – or if it is impacting your work, your relationships, your health or your mood,” she says. “Do you feel like you have control over your drinking? Have you tried to stop but been unable? A lot of it is a question of control.”
Éduc’alcool has a selection of free bilingual online tools to monitor and evaluate alcohol use (educalcool.qc.ca). A second website by the same organization, Altern’alcool, contains a wide range of mocktail recipes.