After the world was struck by the COVID-19 pandemic, nothing remained the same. Restrictions on travel were initially set by various governments of the world. Later, governments of the world imposed a quarantine in their countries, which confined people to their homes even more.
If this wasn’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated the global economy and made hundreds of thousands of people lose their only source of income (1). Restrictions on supply chains after the pandemic also contributed to this situation, making people disillusioned with the policies of their countries and led people to go out on the streets and protest against their government (2).
Now, it doesn’t take rocket science to know that such a dire situation has an adverse effect on mental health and well-being. According to studies, mental health has seen a significant drop since 2019, with more people reporting feeling depressed. Being quarantined is also not a healthy situation for people dealing with addiction issues and those in rehab.
So, how does poor mental health contribute to a spike in addiction? Is there a rise in drug and alcohol consumption after the pandemic? What can people do to deal with the current environment? Questions like these will be answered in this article.
A Severe Drop In Mental Health After The Covid-19 Pandemic
As mentioned above, global mental health has been on a decline after the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other factors such as stressful elections, climate change, and routine protests have also contributed to this decline in mental health.
A 2020 survey by Gallup found a glaring nine-point drop in the assessment of mental health in the American population (3). This survey also finds that the American population’s latest assessment of mental health has been the worst compared to any point in the last decade. This fact alone has alarming consequences.
Usually, between 80 and 90% of Americans report having good mental health, indicating somewhat of a balance. However, according to the Gallup survey, Americans who reported their mental well-being as excellent to good dropped to a whopping 76% (3). This fact points to an abrupt change that occurred after the pandemic, but a majority of Americans still report having good physical health.
The primary cause for this abrupt drop in mental health ratings is the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. As most Americans have some lockdown imposed in their neighborhoods, mental health has been severely affected. Lack of stability in income and social disruption have also contributed to this sudden drop.
The only good news that this survey reported is that certain groups of people that were successful in adapting to lockdown restrictions noted less of a drop in their overall mental well-being.
How COVID-19 Pandemic Affects Mental Health
Here are some ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the mental health of individuals:
It’s no surprise that the imposing lockdown restrictions are isolating people from one another. People are confined to their homes and can’t visit their friends, family, or take part other outdoor activities.
Due to social distancing, people are now living isolated lives. This means that people are more likely to feel lonely. They have less people to be around, and less people to vent their feelings and frustrations to. As expected, such a situation does not help improve mental health.
A study published in Nature aimed to explore the effects of social isolation on the American population’s mental health and well-being due since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (4). The study focused on 309 adults ranging from the ages 18 to 24 years old. While most of the participants in the survey reported having major mental health issues due to social isolation, this effect was noticed even more among young adults.
The effects of social isolation were found to be associated with a lack of satisfaction in life, work-related stress, and a lack of trust in social institutions and governments. In summary, social isolation has adverse effects on the psychological well-being of adults.
Loss Of Social Cohesion
Another side effect of quarantine restrictions and social distancing is the loss of cohesion within specific groups and communities. With the pandemic on the rise, adverse attitudes towards other communities such as racism and xenophobia have made their way into the public debate.
According to a 2020 report by the Human Rights Watch, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a tsunami of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia (5). The outcome of this social attitude has been anti-Asian racist attacks and scapegoating, and scaremongering in public.
People of Asian descent and nationalities are not the only people affected by this rhetoric. Many parties and leaders in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany, have been utilizing the public sentiment to further their white supremacist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and xenophobic agenda.
It is apparent that such an attitude does more harm to mental health more than anything. The mental health of minority communities around the globe is being affected more so than others.
Loss Of Livelihood
Indeed, one of the most significant contributors to the poor mental health of the population has to do with income cuts or loss of jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Poor mental health is just one of the consequences of a loss of income.
As businesses such as factories and hotels continue to face significant restrictions, companies are losing profits. As a result, employers are either forced to cut salaries or fire employees. Thus, the pandemic has left some people jobless and have resulted in families not left with any monetary resources to cope with the pandemic.
According to an official report from the Federation of American scientists, unemployment reached 14.8% in April 2020 (6). This is the highest rate observed since data collection methods were developed in 1948. Moreover, as of April 2021, these rates have shown to be higher than they were in February, going from 3.5% to 6.1%.
The same report showed that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor force participation rate declined to 60.2% in April 2020. This is a percentage that has not been seen since the early 1970s. In addition, nonfarm payrolls have also shed 22.1 million jobs between January 2020 and April 2020.
Furthermore, existing unemployed workers did not look for work due to the restrictions and risks of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 6.5 million unemployed people did not look for work in the COVID-19 pandemic due to restrictions from the government as well as health risks (7).
According to a study published in Plos One, adults who lost a job in the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly higher depression scores than those who did not lose a job (8). The study focused on people from South Africa and showed that there is a need better health and employment policies during the pandemic.
According to Gallup, low-income families were the most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic (3). The reason is obvious. Purchase of daily groceries and other necessary goods became harder for families that had low-income family providers.
Furthermore, essential products in quarantine such as masks, gloves, sanitizers, and other kinds of equipment are harder to get for poor families. This puts families at greater risk for poor mental health and increases their chances of getting into contact with the coronavirus.
Hence, it is clear that the COVID-19 has severely affected the mental health of individuals all over the world.
Mental Health Issues And Substance Abuse: A Link
It’s common knowledge that unhealthy habits such as drug abuse, alcohol consumption, tobacco use, and all other kinds of substance abuse don’t exist in a vacuum. They are typically caused by pre-existing mental health issues, which can be exacerbated by financial conditions and environmental factors.
Mental illness and substance abuse have always been directly or indirectly linked to one another. A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) explored the link between mental illness and drug abuse. The study found that individuals with existing mental health problems consume 38% of all alcohol, 44% of all cocaine, and 40% of all cigarettes (9).
The same study stated that people who have ever experienced some form of mental illness consumed about 69% of all the alcohol, 84% of all the cocaine, and 68% of all cigarettes. Thus, different types of mental illnesses can go hand-in-hand with substance abuse.
As discussed above, mental health problems caused by the loss of jobs in the pandemic, social isolation, and various forms of bigotry aimed at marginalized communities can cause affected individuals to consume drugs, tobacco, alcohol, and other opiates. Thus, showing how the pandemic could have led to a spike in substance abuse.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration nearly 9 million people experienced a substance abuse disorder that overlapped with other conditions such as severe mental health concerns, which also puts them at risk of chronic diseases (10).
COVID-19 And Substance Abuse: Has There Been A Rise In Drug and Alcohol Consumption?
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of lockdown, the demand for psychologists to treat illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and other issues has increased two-fold. The American Psychological Association (APA) official report stated that due to an emotional toll on the population following the pandemic, more people are developing symptoms of anxiety and depression (11).
Under the influence of depression and anxiety, experts are now saying that the use of opioids and other mind-altering substances has also been increasing. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of Americans view the use of opioids and other substances as a way to cope with the negative emotions and anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic (12).
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention report also added that those affected by the outbreak of COVID-19 included young adults, essential workers, racial minorities, and unpaid caregivers. These groups experienced a worse mental state, an increased tendency for drug abuse, and an elevated level of suicidal thoughts.
Reports of anxiety disorder symptoms by the American population after the pandemic were three times more than the prevalence of symptoms reported in the second quarter of 2019. This fact is a clear indication of the mental health effects of COVID-19.
Drug overdose has also been on the rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The ODMAP reports that people experienced an 18% increase in nationwide overdoses in the earlier months of the pandemic compared to the overdose rates in 2019 (13). This trend of overdoses continued throughout 2020.
In December, a report from the American Medical Association stated that more than 40 US states had reported increases in opioid-related mortality rates and various other health concerns for people addicted to mind-altering drugs (14). The report shows that while the world has been suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also ushered in an epidemic of overdose deaths.
According to Mandy Owens, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, the spike in drug abuse during the pandemic includes both quantity and frequency (15). People who were already on a drug have either started taking more of that substance or have started taking a new drug.
Mandy Owens also says that drug addicts move on to new substances if their preferred drug gets restricted or becomes unavailable. As an example, Mandy Owens reported that in Washington, more and more people are buying fentanyl, a drug that is produced illegally, due to the unavailability of other drugs following the shift in drug supply chains (16).
Experts suggest that people are making unhealthy life decisions due to loneliness, stress, and dire financial conditions exacerbated by the pandemic. In addition, due to lockdown restrictions, people have fewer ways to manage stress, such as lack of physical activities and social interactions, and therefore are turning to these drugs and other mind-numbing substances.
There are also other ways the pandemic has caused drug-related mortality. For example, people who end up overdosing on a fatal drug have significantly fewer chances for survival in the pandemic if they are alone since there will be no one to call an ambulance for them.
Drug use during the pandemic has not only been related to addicts. According to a report from Health, drug addicts on their path to recovery and those seeking rehab faced many difficulties getting access to treatment (17). Many clinics and community-based organizations restricted their services due to COVID-19. As a consequence, people seeking rehab were more likely to experience a relapse.
According to the same report, experts working in drug-related fields have seen spikes in relapses following the COVID-19 pandemic. This statement was also true for opioid patients that were sober for five or more years.
To create an official report, the Addiction Policy Forum conducted surveys from 1,079 respondents in June 2020 (18). All respondents were patients suffering from substance use disorders in America.
The survey found that 34% of opioid patients experienced changes, difficulties, and disruptions in getting access to their needed rehab services and treatment after the pandemic. Furthermore, 14% of these patients reported that they did not receive any treatments or services.
The participants focused on in this study stated that the inability to seek treatment and services in the pandemic was their primary concern. In addition, even though meetings were regularly being held on Zoom, patients reported that it was not the same as physically meeting their peers and doctors.
According to the survey, 74% of patients noticed clear changes in their emotions due to lack of access to rehab services as well as due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the survey, 62% of the patients noticed that they were worrying more than usual, 51% reported that they are more afraid than they typically were, and 42% of the patients reported feeling lonelier.
It is apparent from the findings given above that the COVID-19 pandemic creates a vicious cycle where various people may develop mental health problems due to lockdown restrictions, forcing individuals to seek drugs as a means to cope, which in turn ruins the mental health of individuals in the long term.
Hence, it is of utmost importance to find rehabilitation centers that continue to give excellent services despite the restrictions of the pandemic, such as the best rehab center in Texas.
Worker Substance Abuse
As policy restrictions on workplaces increased, workers employed by corporations also indulged in drugs. According to the Cleaning & Maintenance Management (CMM), a behavioral health impact update survey was conducted in 2020 to examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the behavior of workers in the workplace (19).
The survey included 1,425 full-time US employees. According to their responses, 49% of all surveyed workers were suffering from some level of drug addiction. Furthermore, 36% of all surveyed workers reported that their drug addiction affected their behavior and performance in the workplace.
According to a study, 19% of these workers were indulging in drugs, alcohol, and prescription medicine every week. This has alarming consequences for safety of workers and the corporations that employ them.
After the dawn of COVID-19, workers have reported experiencing significantly more stress and muscular discomfort in the workplace too (20). In addition, excessive use of alcohol or drug abuse can exacerbate these conditions and may lead to a significant number of workplace injuries.
As a response, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued two technical assistance documents on August 5, 2020, to address substance abuse accommodation issues for employees addicted to opioids under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (21).
These documents state that if an employee were to be diagnosed with opioid addiction, the employer is required to help the employee with the addiction by giving the employee a temporary leave from work or an extended leave of absence so the worker can seek treatment.
Drinking And Alcohol Consumption
It is common knowledge that drugs are not the only way people cope with reality. Cheaply available and easy to access, alcohol has also been playing a role in exacerbating addiction rates during the current pandemic.
North Carolina-based Research Triangle Institute International surveyed 993 people. According to the survey, the percentage of people binge drinking (i.e., having more than four drinks in two hours for men and three drinks in two hours for women), rose from 22% in February to 27% in April. However, 21% of the individuals reported drinking less heavily (22).
The contradiction in the data is due to the restrictions on clubs and bars set by the government. People who routinely visited a club or a bar were no longer able to do so and therefore had less access to alcoholic drinks. However, the same is not true for every individual drinker as many states in the US permit at-home alcohol orders.
Alcohol misuse has serious health risks that may or may not come with drugs. These health risks include high blood pressure, strokes, heart diseases, liver failure, breast cancer, mouth cancer, throat cancer, and cancer in various other parts of the body (23).
Another relevant side effect of alcohol use is the weakening of the immune system, which can increase a person’s chances of contracting the COVID-19 virus, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) (24).
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report also discusses a prevalent myth among the general population that the consumption of alcohol can prevent or destroy the Coronavirus. This myth is based on the fact that hand sanitizers contain 60-95% ethyl alcohol. While the alcohol amount in the sanitizer may kill bacteria and viruses, a high amount of alcohol in the human blood can prove to be fatal.
Since alcohol impairs the judgment and thinking of individuals, a drunk person is more likely to engage in activities that may increase their chances of contracting the coronavirus. For example, a person under the influence of alcohol may not use hand sanitizer while going out or may not remember to wear his mask.
Drunk people may also forget to follow other safety protocols such as handwashing and maintenance of social distancing. In addition, there are many other side effects related to the overconsumption of alcohol. For example, excessive alcohol consumption can take a significant toll on the mental well-being of a person.
What Can Be Done To Reduce Substance Abuse?
By now, it can be easy to see how COVID-19 has caused a spike in drug and alcohol addiction. Social isolation coupled with a lack of access to help means that the situation may seem bleak, but there is good news.
Organizations and psychologists are taking steps to reduce alcohol and drug consumption among people during this pandemic. For instance, the Hartford Financial Services Group introduced two prescription digital therapeutic (PDT) apps to the group’s pharmacy formulary (25). One application deals with patients suffering from general substance use disorders, while the other for those that suffer from opioid use.
These PDT apps can be beneficial in reducing substance use disorders among workers and the general public. The aim of these apps is to give people access to the medication and tools that can be used for rehab. The app will also prove helpful in identifying the behavior that leads one to abuse drugs.
The Hartford Financial Services Group also took practical steps to reduce addiction rates among the general public. For example, the group shortened the prescription length of opioids from seven to five days for employees over age 25 and three days for employees under age 25.
The company is also paying for physical therapy to help drug addicts overcome their substance abuse disorder. Due to the stigma around mental health and substance abuse, employees feel ashamed admitting that they are on opioids.
To battle this stigma, the Hartford Financial Services Group has advised leaders and CEOs to come out to their employees regarding the challenges they faced regarding substance abuse in the past. Having a conversation around these sensitive issues will likely reduce the same workers feel when they seek treatment.
It is clear that this pandemic has caused a massive spike in drug and alcohol consumption. This is a dark time, and it’s understandable to be pessimistic regarding the situation. However, now’s not the time to give up.
Policy measures from the government, workplace accommodation for workers suffering from substance abuse, and finding proper help, such as the best female rehab center, can decrease the harmful effects the pandemic has had on drug and alcohol addiction rates.
John Eckelbarger is a Business Development Representative for Stonegate Center. With a BSA in Chemistry from the University of Texas at Austin, he has an interest in the neurobiology of addiction & pharmacology of drugs. He hopes to bolster Stonegate Center to the forefront of addiction medicine through bold, innovative content. He is currently pursuing his MBA in Finance from Texas Christian University.