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Substance Abuse During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Heather Lyons, Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession create unique challenges for all of us. In a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly half (45%) of adults in the United States reported that their mental health had been negatively affected due to worry and stress over the pandemic. 

Ongoing measures are underway to slow the spread of COVID-19. They include social distancing to avoid close contact, business and school closures, and stay-at-home orders. An unintended consequence is that the prevalence of mental health issues will increase due to continued isolation and financial distress.

Woman holding her head in her hands

Uncertainty and fear surrounding the coronavirus disease are likely to exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions and substance use disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Studies have shown that epidemics tend to induce general stress. This can pose a higher risk for new mental health and substance abuse problems.

What is Substance Abuse?

According to the World Health Organization, substance abuse is “the harmful or hazardous use of psychoactive substances, including alcohol and illicit drugs.” Substance abuse occurs when an individual uses substances in a way that is not intended or prescribed.

Substance abuse can lead to substance dependence syndrome (addiction). This involves a combination of behavioral, cognitive, and physiological symptoms that develop after repeated substance use. Substance dependence syndrome typically involves a strong desire to use the drug, substance use despite harmful consequences, increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms.

Despite the widespread use of the term “addiction,” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) does not use this concept in diagnosis. According to the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrists are not able to agree on a definition of “addiction.” Furthermore, the term can take on a negative connotation. Instead, the writers of the DSM 5 use the term “substance use disorder.” They also provide criteria for the severity of the disorder.  

How Common is Substance Abuse?

The 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reported that approximately 60% of people in the United States used illegal drugs, prescription drugs, or alcohol in 2017, while 8% met the diagnostic criteria for substance use disorder.

According to the NSDUH, 9.2 million adults in the United States experienced a mental illness and substance use disorder in 2018. Mental illness may be present before the abuse occurs. Alternatively, an individual may turn to prescription drugs, alcohol, or illegal drugs as a form of medication. The use of drugs and alcohol typically worsens the symptoms of pre-existing conditions.

Who Is At Risk for Substance Abuse?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 40% to 70% of an individual’s risk for developing a substance use disorder is genetic. Still, environmental risk factors can also contribute to one’s vulnerability to substance abuse. Common risk factors include:

  • Being raised in a home where parents or other family members used alcohol, drugs, or illegal substances
  • Living in neighborhoods or going to schools with a high prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse

Compared to the general population, older adults and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions are more likely to develop complications if they contract the coronavirus. Due to their increased vulnerability to the coronavirus, older adults and those with health conditions need to practice social distancing and limit their interactions with loved ones. 

Social distancing can lead to increased feelings of loneliness and anxiety and feelings of uncertainty and fear, placing older adults and individuals with health conditions at higher risk for substance abuse.

What Is Considered Substance Abuse?

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), substance use crosses the line of abuse when repeated alcohol or drug use causes significant impairment, such as:

  • Impaired control
  • Social problems
  • Risky use
  • Drug effects, such as increased tolerance to higher doses

For example, if your drinking leads to fights with family members, it likely qualifies as Alcohol Use Disorder or what might be commonly referred to as “alcohol abuse.” . Similarly, if you frequently miss work due to drug use, you may be struggling with another diagnosable substance use disorder.

Some health officials argue that the recreational use of some drugs is not harmful. Others say that it meets the definition of drug abuse. In recent years, research has shown that marijuana use may have more harmful effects than initially believed. In an April 2020 research report, the National Institute on Drug Use (NIDA) found that some marijuana users can become psychologically dependent on it. This can lead to drug addiction and abuse.

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Symptoms of Substance Use

If you believe a friend or family member is drinking too much, using illicit drugs, or giving in to peer pressure, looking out for the behavioral and physical changes associated with substance use can help you take action. Common physical symptoms of substance use include:

  • Glazed or bloodshot eyes
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Sudden weight loss or weight gain
  • Dental issues
  • Skin changes
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much

Substance use can also lead to behavioral changes. Repeated drug use can cause brain changes and impair the brain’s ability to think clearly. Common behavioral symptoms that may be associated with alcohol or drug use include:

  • Heightened aggression and irritability
  • Changes in personality
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Depression
  • Dramatic behavioral changes
  • Involvement in criminal activity

Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Recovery Services

Social distancing creates a new set of challenges and hardships for individuals struggling with substance abuse and substance use disorders. While the novel coronavirus has limited in-person access to services, many therapists, support groups, and treatment facilities have moved to an online platform to provide care and effective treatment.

If you’re under the care of health care professionals or mental health experts, reach out to them about accessing remote services. You can also find support and answers to general questions about substance abuse from various organizations that offer online recovery services, such as: 

How To Find Help for Substance Abuse

According to public health officials, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can exacerbate pre-existing substance use disorders and mental disorders by creating a new set of stressors. The stress of illness, social distancing, and unemployment are significant triggers for individuals struggling with alcohol or drug problems. Many people turn to substances to cope during periods of acute stress.

If you’re struggling with substance abuse, alcohol use disorder, or a drug problem, consider reaching out to a healthcare provider through WithTherapy. Whether you’re transitioning from in-person therapy or trying teletherapy for the first time, we’ll connect you to a mental health professional that you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. One of the mental health experts on the WithTherapy platform will provide compassion and support while helping you avoid drug or alcohol abuse and learn healthy recovery and coping strategies.

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