Vermont alcohol report shows increase in deaths

Alcohol is Vermont’s most abused substance and it has been a cause of concern for a long time. That’s according to Vermont’s Department of Health.
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 5:24 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 8, 2023 at 10:52 AM EST
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ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - Alcohol is Vermont’s most abused substance and it has been a cause of concern for a long time, according to the Vermont Department of Health.

Now, a new report from 2017 to 2021 shows 36% more people died because of alcohol use.

Vermont’s highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in this range was in Orleans County with Caledonia, Rutland and Bennington counties trailing right behind.

The report explains that alcohol-induced deaths have been higher in 2019-2020 in rural areas, the category that 11 Vermont counties fall in.

Alcohol is the number one diagnosis for substance use disorder at Northeast Kingdom Human Services in St. Johnsbury, a state-designated agency providing mental health, addiction, emergency services and more.

“I do think that is connected to COVID isolation to loneliness. I think those are connected people lacking community, ways to connect, relationships. So we can see substance use as a coping mechanism and people who need support. So I think we’ve seen that as an uptick here,” said Kelsey Stavseth, the executive director of Northeast Kingdom Human Services.

Stavseth said rural communities inherently face more challenges on the path to recovery.

“One of the things that we see that can be a struggle is just transportation. How do you get to services? How do you get to community? How do you get to people who might be supportive and you know, part of an agency that’s really embedded in embraces the philosophy of home?” said Stavseth.

Megan Mitchell, the state’s director of clinical services, agrees.

“Isolation and disconnection, traveling as we lost internet access. So in our rural area, it’s not only are we more spread out, but some of those other tools that help us connect to people might not be as reliable or available to folks,” said Mitchell.

While the direct causality for the alcohol-related death is not as apparent as something like an opioid overdose, the Health Department said deaths involving misuse and poisoning more than doubled from 2017 to 2021 statewide.

Mitchell said some reasons could be attributed to the pandemic, like increased stress leading to drinking.

“Older adults were also more likely to die from COVID and they’re also more likely to have chronic illnesses that were worsened by alcohol,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said there are providers throughout the state like NEK Human Services for Vermonters to go to for help. There are also private practitioners, alcohol and drug counselors, and clinical social workers.

But Stavseth said workforce challenges do persist.

“It’s been challenging to find people who are entering this field who want to work here. And then I think that’s compounded by the geography for us specifically. Rural areas, I think, with the population, can struggle to find folks who want to do this work,” said Stavseth.

Stavseth said they do have the capacity to support folks, but immediate crisis services are in a bit of a bind, especially as emergency rooms become overwhelmed.

Mitchell said there are signs of high alcohol use to watch out for.

“If people are starting to have trouble fulfilling their obligations at work or at school. For youth, perhaps it’s failing classes. For adults who are in the work world, perhaps they are struggling at work or having to call into work a lot. So those are just a few of the things that that people might notice,” said Mitchell.

And there are resources available if you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder. For the emergency helpline, call 988 or visit their website. For information on recovery and treatment, visit the Vermont Department of Health website.