What you need to know
There is evidence that large-scale disasters lead to emotional distress and increased substance use. Similar patterns have been observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol is the most used substance among Canadians during the pandemic. The risk of alcohol-related harms can be experienced from both acute and longer-term consumption. Alcohol sales were designated as an essential service during COVID-19 in many Canadian jurisdictions, and comparable patterns have been observed in the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland and Australia.
Canadian researchers conducted a cross-sectional survey focusing on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on alcohol use and emotional well-being among New Brunswick and Nova Scotia adults. To date, research in this area has been limited, with no population-based Canadian studies. This study found that individuals who reported increased feelings of stress, loneliness and hopelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic were more likely to report increased drinking frequency.
What is this research about?
Individuals often use alcohol as a coping mechanism during times of stress. Studies have shown that emotional distress is associated with increased drinking frequency in both men and women. New and emerging evidence is now suggesting that alcohol consumption has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. This increase has potential long-term social and economic costs for individuals, communities and society.
Drawing on data from a cross-sectional survey of adults in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, this study examined:
- changes in alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic
- an association between drinking more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic and increased feelings of stress, loneliness and hopelessness
- differences based on gender.
What did the researchers do?
The researchers conducted a cross-sectional survey of adults living in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. They collected data from 2,000 individuals aged 19 and older in two phases. In the first phase, 500 respondents were randomly selected to be surveyed online, and researchers targeted those with Internet access, including hard-to-reach target groups. In the second phase, 1,500 respondents were selected through telephone, and researchers targeted those regions not captured or underrepresented in the online survey. A Canadian market research company administered the survey.
The researchers captured data on the following factors:
- change in drinking frequency pre-COVID-19 and during the pandemic
- emotional distress (i.e., increased feelings of stress, loneliness and hopelessness since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic)
- overall self-rated mental health
- sociodemographic factors (e.g., gender, ethnicity, age, official language spoken, living alone, completed a bachelor’s degree, employment status and province of residence).
What did the researchers find?
Of those surveyed, the average age of the participants was 50 years, and 52% identified as women.
The researchers found that:
- over three quarters of respondents reported good to excellent mental health and well-being (76.9%), with the same proportion reporting drinking alcohol (76.9%)
- since the start of the pandemic, 12.2% of respondents consumed alcohol more frequently than before, 49.9% reported that they were drinking the same, 14.8% reported that they were drinking less and 23.1% reported that they did not drink
- since the start of the pandemic, 43.5% of respondents reported increased levels of stress, 38.4% reported increased feelings of loneliness and 25.3% reported increased feelings of hopelessness
- a greater proportion of women reported increased emotional distress since the start of the pandemic compared to males
- a greater proportion of men reported drinking since the start of the pandemic compared to women
- a significant association was observed between increased emotional distress and increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic, though only among men.
Overall, the researchers found increased feelings of stress, loneliness and hopelessness were all associated with drinking more frequently during the pandemic. Furthermore, respondents who reported more frequent drinking since the start of the pandemic were, on average, younger and more likely to report fair or poor mental health and higher rates of stress, loneliness and hopelessness.
Limitations of the research
The researchers note that their study had several limitations. Data were only collected in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, and may not be generalizable to other regions of Canada. In addition, survey responses were based on individual experiences at a specific point in time, so the researchers could not determine any cause-and-effect relationship between emotional distress and increased frequency of drinking during the pandemic. Responses were drawn from self-reports, which may have led to response bias, including social desirability bias and recall bias. Also, the study had a low response rate, which may have led to non-response bias.
How can you use this research?
The researchers note that more research is needed to help develop alcohol control policies and public health interventions to understand the association between several factors such as mental health, drinking frequency and alcohol availability that increased alcohol consumption throughout the pandemic and beyond. They recommend that future public health measures should include warnings against emotionally motivated alcohol consumption and other high-risk drinking behaviours.
About the researchers
Kara Thompson,1 Daniel J. Dutton,2 Kathleen MacNabb,2 Tong Liu,2 Sarah Blades,3 Mark Asbridge2
- Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada
- Department of Community Health and Epidemiology, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
- Health Promotion Team, Mental Health and Addictions, IWK Health, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada