Use of alcohol and other drugs increased early in the COVID-19 pandemic
What you need to know
The COVID-19 pandemic has had serious impacts on people’s negative emotions, which is known to affect the use of substances and the development of substance use disorders. An international team of researchers conducted a literature review to look at changes in prevalence, incidence and severity of substance use associated with the pandemic and corresponding public health measures. There was an increase in the use of substances among those who drank in risky ways before the pandemic. The risk of increased substance use was greatest for those who had caregiving responsibilities, stress, depression or anxiety. Also at greater risk were those who were receiving treatment for a mental disorder before the pandemic.
What is this research about?
To reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, governments around the world put in place a variety of measures that limited people’s physical contact with others, including lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
These types of measures can increase negative emotions, which are linked to the use of substances and to the development of substance use disorders. It is important to consider the impacts of such measures on the use of substances because this information makes it possible to plan treatments and supports based on the population’s needs.
What did the researchers do?
An international team of researchers conducted a systematic review of research published during the COVID-19 pandemic. They looked at changes in substance use associated with the pandemic and public health measures. They aimed to understand how these changes might impact the need for treatment and support systems.
What did the researchers find?
The researchers identified 53 papers that described changes in substance use during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic substance use at the population level. Most of these studies described changes in alcohol use and relied on self-reports of drinking. There was less evidence to support changes in the use of other substances.
The researchers found an increase in the use of substances among those who drank in risky ways before the pandemic. Those who had caregiving responsibilities, stress, depression or anxiety, and those who were receiving treatment for a mental disorder before the pandemic were also more likely to have increased their substance use.
Limitations of the research
The researchers identified several limitations of their review, including a lack of studies looking at the use of substances other than alcohol, a lack of information from low-income countries that were particularly impacted by COVID-19 and a lack of research published in languages other than English, French and Spanish. Most of the studies in the review did not look at the severity of substance use and only looked at the proportion of the population that increased or decreased their use. Also, most of the studies used convenience and snowball sampling methods to identify study subjects, so they were not representative of the overall population.
How can you use this research?
This research would be useful in developing harm reduction campaigns related to substance use during the pandemic. It would also be relevant when planning programs and services for the prevention and treatment of substance use during the pandemic. Researchers may also wish to conduct population-level research on substance use by gender and age to inform evidence-based, rapid responses to the COVID-19 pandemic from a treatment system perspective.
About the researchers
Rose A. Schmidt,1,2 Rosalie Genois,3 Jonathan Jin,1 Daniel Vigo,4 Jürgen Rehm,1,2,5,6,7,8,9,10 Brian Rush1,2,7
- Institute for Mental Health Policy Research, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Toronto, ON, Canada
- Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
- Université de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
- Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada
- Institute of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy & Center of Clinical Epidemiology and Longitudinal Studies (CELOS), Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
- Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
- Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute, Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Toronto, ON, Canada
- Department of International Health Projects, Institute for Leadership and Health Management, I.M. Sechenov First Moscow State Medical University, Moscow, Russian Federation
- Agència de Salut Pública de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain
- Center for Interdisciplinary Addiction Research (ZIS), Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE), Hamburg, Germany