Addiction during the COVID-19 pandemic
Addiction rates are on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic, how can individuals take steps to look after their mental health during times of anxiety and stress?
June 26 marked the 34th annual International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking (https://www.un.org/en/observances/end-drug-abuse-day), a day supported each year by individuals, communities and organisations worldwide in an attempt to raise awareness around the major problem illicit drugs represent to our society. On the homefront, health groups and addiction treatment centres have reported a worrying increase in drug use, substance abuse and addiction since the beginning of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns in the UK.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added strain to the healthcare system in the UK, especially during surges in infection, this added strain has left communities without usual addiction services or mental health services to meet the needs of patients with addictions, this, in turn, has led to an increase in relapse addictions, mental health issues and new substance use disorders. Many new addicts may also be in denial and not seek treatment timeously.
As of May 2021, the general guideline released by the Public Health in England for commissioners and providers of services for people who use drugs or alcohol states:
“It is important that drug and alcohol services remain open and operating as they protect vulnerable people who are at greater risk from COVID-19 and help reduce the burden on other healthcare services. People who misuse or are dependent on drugs and alcohol may be at increased risk of becoming infected, and infecting others, with COVID-19. They may also be more vulnerable to poor health outcomes due to underlying physical and mental health conditions, which may have worsened due to the pandemic.”
To gauge the impact COVID-19’s pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have had on the mental health of the communities in the UK, we must look at the factors that may be influencing the rise in mental health issues and substance use disorders:
- Financial strain & Job insecurity – Furloughed workers reported an increase in drinking according to the Drinkaware press release – 35% of surveyed workers had increased drinking habits.
- Relapse, people in addiction recovery are at increased risk of using drugs or alcohol when they are unable to access the normal treatment services they have in the past and previous triggers are exaggerated due to the unprecedented stress of the pandemic.
- Health Issues – Increased risk of infection from COVID-19 due to substance abuse habits, being diagnosed with COVID-19 or having recovered from an infection.
- Pre-existing mental health issues that are left untreated or unmedicated due to quarantine and isolation or restricted access to healthcare services
- Anxiety – addictive substances and behaviours such as alcohol, drugs or gambling, provide temporary relief through activation in the reward centres of the brain
- Isolation through imposed lockdowns, from friends, family and loved ones
Support groups or mutual aid groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, community and church groups have had to change their support strategies – meetings, where possible, have been offered online to try to keep up a continuation of recovery treatment for people with addictions. For some people, this has been great but others have found the change difficult and relapse rates have risen in the UK (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7219362/ & https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7282772)
The COVID-19 pandemic and the enforced lockdowns have shown the otherwise hidden behavioural addictions amongst teens and young adults, isolation, loss of job or schooling, financial burden, stress, depression, anxiety, phobia and lastly availability of plenty of leisure time altogether has provided fertile ground in which behavioural addictions can start growing relentlessly, there has been a marked increase in internet usage, particularly to access pornographic and gaming websites, there has also been an increase in online shopping for non-essentials or pleasure items. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7282772/)
The long term effects have been hard to determine as the behavioural addictions that have arisen during this pandemic and the three lockdowns in the UK may be felt for years to come, causing a vicious cycle that starts with stress, depression, social isolation, anxiety, excess leisure time with cheap internet leading to a surge of behavioural addictions which in turn results in mood changes, irritability, anxiety and stress only to hold firmly the initiators and sequential ignition of this vicious cascade with lingering aftermath.
If you are concerned about your or a loved ones drinking or substance use habits, we encourage you to
- Stay connected and reach out to mental health organisations and online support groups.
- Stay in touch online or over your phone with family and loved ones if in isolation or quarantine
- Be kind to yourself and your loved ones, remember this is a difficult time for everyone
- Being stuck at home doesn’t mean that you have to stay behind your computer, on social media, working or gaming constantly etc, build some structure to your life, develop healthy routines and habits.