We know that COVID 19 has impacted our lives in many ways. An area of growing concern is the impacts of the pandemic on substance use. There is evidence to suggest that there has been a decline in the use of some substances (heroin and methamphetamine) due to cost, availability and limits to social gatherings however this has led to an increase in use of other substances (alcohol, cannabis and prescription medications).
Why has the use of some substances increased?
Let’s break this down into a few important points.
Firstly, higher levels of stress and anxiety have contributed significantly to substance use. This may be due to:
- The fear of the unknown, sense of uncertainty and feelings of being out of control
- impacts on job security such as loss of jobs, difficulty with gaining employment, changes to income and affordability of expenses
- limited opportunities for socialising leading to feeling lonely and isolated
- worries about health, in particular fears of contracting the virus and/or passing it on to others who may be more at risk
- increased responsibilities of home-schooling children whilst trying to work from home
Increased stress and anxiety may lead people to find ways to manage this. It’s not new information that for some people using substances is an unhealthy coping strategy to manage these emotions.
Another factor is the limited access to healthy coping strategies that individuals may normally use to manage stress, anxiety and cravings. Some such healthy coping strategies include exercise, eating healthy, spending time with friends and family, seeking professional help and engaging in enjoyable activities. Many of these things have become restricted during the pandemic and therefore leads to less availability of strategies to use. Less healthy coping strategies means engaging in more unhealthy coping strategies.
As stated above seeking professional help is a great way to help people deal with the complexities and difficulties of the pandemic. But herein lies another problem. Currently mental health services are overwhelmed with referrals, making it difficult for individuals to seek the help they may need. For someone who is struggling with substance use seeking psychological intervention may be imperative to their improvement and recovery. Lack of availability means lack of support and therefore substance use may continue.
Also boredom! Think about it, we’re stuck at home, there’s not much to do, nowhere to go. Using substances is something people use to relieve their boredom. For some it can make the mundane things more enjoyable. We also know that alcohol provides us with a hit of dopamine, it makes us feel good, something that during times of lockdown and isolation can be hard to get.
What can I do if I am worried about mine or someone else’s increased substance use?
There are still ways to help yourself and others who are finding the pandemic tough and have resorted to using alcohol or other substances as a band aid. Here’s how:
- Reach out to your friends and family (whether you are seeking help or offering it). Organise to chat with them on the phone or have a online video call together whilst you play a game!
- Make a list of healthy coping strategies you can do even when you’re in lockdown. These can be used to help when things get tough. It could be things like having a bath, reading a book, doing some colouring in or going for a walk.
- Try to be realistic! It is easy to get caught up in thinking negatively about the situation. Remember to look at the whole picture and see both the positive and the negative.
- Talk to your GP or seek assistance from other health professionals where possible
- Use the help that is available. Below are some numbers or places you can go for assistance.