The stress of the pandemic, coupled with the increased isolation from others and disruption to daily routines, provided a perfect storm for substance use and abuse. While governments enacted policies aimed at protecting public health like stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements, there were psychological impacts — including fear, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
A recent survey found 13% of respondents either started or increased substance use to cope with the stress and emotions related to COVID-19.
For individuals already struggling with substance use or abuse issues — or for those in recovery — these new hurdles were difficult to overcome, especially as alternative outlets like gyms and in-person meetings and other social events became difficult to access. As restrictions ease and people begin to return to social activities, it’s important to understand how substance abuse has been affected by the pandemic and how to find help.
Substance Rise During Pandemic
Substance use and abuse increased across the board during the pandemic. Here are some examples.
• Illicit drugs: Drug overdose deaths increased during the pandemic. More than 90,000 people died in the 12 months from September 2019 to September 2020 — 20,000 more individuals than the same time period the year before. Specifically, overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl spiked by an unprecedented 55% during that same time period, according to preliminary data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
• Medicinal cannabis: Medical cannabis users were also impacted by the pandemic. More than half of medical cannabis users surveyed in 2020 said they either started using medications or substances because of the pandemic — typically alcohol and sleep aids. Part of that was due to issues with access to medicinal cannabis.
• Alcohol: Adults drank 14% more during the pandemic, partially due to isolation and social distancing efforts. This could be fueling recent upticks in cases of alcohol-related conditions, including alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure.
Impacts of Substance Use and Abuse
There are short-term and long-term effects on the body from misusing drugs and other substances. Short-term effects include changes in appetite, blood pressure, heart rate and wakefulness as well as increased risk of early death, heart attack, overdose and psychosis.
Long-term effects of substance use and abuse can include addiction, cancer, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS, lung disease and mental illness.
Help is available for individuals confronting substance use and abuse issues.
For emergency mental health support that’s not life threatening, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support at 800-273-8255.
For emergency help to prevent death or serious harm, seek help at the nearest emergency room or call 911.
Anyone seeking help for alcohol dependency should start with their primary care provider or a mental health provider. For those in need of a substance use and recovery facility, primary care providers or mental health providers can also provide a referral or an individual’s insurance company can provide a list of options as well.
William Beecroft, M.D., is a Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and medical director of behavioral health at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Visit MIBluesPerspectives.com.