New research provides evidence that psychological factors related to the COVID-19 pandemic may be risk factors for substance use initiation. The study has been published in the journal Psychiatry Research.
“Given that there is so much unknown about COVID-19 and its consequences, we were specifically interested in mental health and substance use consequences associated with COVID-19,” said study author Andrew H. Rogers of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory & Substance Use Treatment Clinic at the University of Houston.
“A significant proportion of people are now at home and without work, coupled with increased stress. In these times, we know that substance use increases, so we wanted to see if we could understand specific predictors of increases in substance use.”
For their study, the researcher surveyed 160 American adults between April and May 2020 regarding their COVID-19-related worry and fear. They examined three groups of substances users: abstainers, pre-COVID-19 users, and COVID-19 initiators.
Many participants reported using substances “a little more” or “a lot more” since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. About 7% started smoking cigarettes, 5.0% started using cannabis, 4.4% started using e-cigarettes, 5.6% started using stimulants, and 5.6% started using opioids.
The researchers found that COVID-19-related worry and fear were highest among participants who initiated substance use compared to pre-COVID-19 users and abstainers.
In other words, those who initiated drug use during the pandemic tended to agree more with statements such as “I worry that I will come into contact with someone that has COVID-19” and “When watching news and stories about COVID-19 on social media, I become nervous or anxious.”
The findings indicate “that COVID-19-specific mental health factors are related to starting to use substances during the pandemic,” Rogers told PsyPost.
“This is particularly troubling, because these results are for those people that reported not using any substances prior to the pandemic. We know that using substances to relieve stress is associated with poor outcomes, so these findings are particularly concerning.”
The results also suggest that “catastrophizing” the pandemic can amplify the actual stress impact, explained co-author Michael Zvolensky in a news release.
“That sets in motion a future wave of mental health, addiction and worsening health problems in our society. It’s not going to go away, even with a vaccination, because the damage is already done. That’s why we’re going to see people with greater health problems struggling for generations,” said Zvolensky.
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“There are a number of caveats and questions that still need to be addressed,” Rogers said. “First, given the dynamic nature of the pandemic, there is still so much to learn about the long-term consequences of the virus and pandemic. Additionally, the results of the study were garnered from an online survey. It would be important to replicate the findings in other settings, and to extend the results to understand the consequences of increasing substance use during the pandemic.”
“It is important to consider the long-term mental health and substance use impacts of the pandemic. Long after the virus is gone and infection transmission rates are lowered, there will be a number of COVID-19-associated consequences that will require specialized clinical attention,” Rogers added.
The study, “Psychological factors associated with substance use initiation during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was authored by Andrew H. Rogers, Justin M. Shepherd, Lorra Garey, and Michael J. Zvolensky.