Many of us have seen ourselves, along with our friends, loved ones and peers, struggling throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard not to notice that people have seemed more stressed and uncertain. Mental health professionals have been worried that the ongoing pandemic would have long-reaching and long-lasting negative effects on Americans’ mental health, and now research is confirming that these concerns were well-founded.
A February study found that 41% of adults had symptoms of anxiety or depression in January, 2021, compared to 11% in January through June of 2019. Poor mental health often leads people to use substances as a way to cope or self-medicate, and that has not changed in the wake of the pandemic. In a survey from June 2020, researchers found that 13.3% of all adults had increased or began substance use; 24.7% of those who increased or began use were between the ages of 18 and 24.
These findings indicate that, along with mental health services, substance use treatment will be more important than ever in the coming months and years. Many people are exiting the pandemic with new or worsened mental health symptoms or even addictions, and it’s necessary to have recovery resources, treatment opportunities and ways to raise awareness. One recent survey from The Recovery Village illustrates the relationship between mental health and substance use and explores the role of alcohol in the day-to-day lives of respondents.
Our survey includes results from more than 2,000 adult respondents who have tried to stop drinking (successfully or not) or want to stop. Many of these respondents (47.1%) qualified as heavy drinkers, which put them even more at risk for health and over negative complications from alcohol use. When asked why they drank, the top answers included:
- coping with stress (64.9%)
- recreational purposes (61.9%)
- coping with mental health symptoms (43.5%)
- combating boredom (38.1%)
These responses are alarming, given the pandemic’s isolating nature and its effects on stress and mental health. Stress and boredom are very powerful relapse triggers, and being physically isolated can make substance use tempting even if it ultimately doesn’t help and may actually make things worse.
In fact, 45% of respondents said that alcohol affected their mental health. Respondents also reported that drinking affected their:
- careers (25.3%)
Compared to others in the study, heavy drinkers more than doubled their risk for negative effects on their mental health, careers and relationships. Over a third of respondents reported depression due to alcohol use, but heavy drinkers were 83% more likely to be depressed.
Physical and mental health are intertwined, which can lead to a vicious cycle wherein mental health worsens due to physical ailments and vice versa. In addition to damaging mental well-being, alcohol use causes a variety of physical health concerns. Of the respondents, 1 in 3 reported high blood pressure, 1 in 6 reported liver disease and 1 in 7 reported a weakened immune system due to drinking. Those who drank heavily more than doubled their risk for these conditions and others.
Breaking the Cycle
A person may use alcohol to cope with mental or physical health issues, and it may work for a short time. However, as a person develops tolerance to a substance like alcohol, they need more of it to feel the same effects. Their brain begins adapting to the presence of alcohol, and at this point, quitting leads to uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Even if someone wants to stop drinking, it can be difficult to overcome this hurdle.
Treatment is effective and can help people live healthier, sober lives. Unfortunately, few people who need help actually receive it. Of the 14.1 million people with alcohol use disorder in 2019, only 17% received any form of treatment. When our survey asked why respondents avoided treatment, the top factors were financial costs, uncertainty and lack of time. Others stated they feared judgment from others. This response in particular shows that stigma surrounding addiction is still common; worse, it’s preventing people from seeking life-saving help.
Mental health concerns and substance use rates are already on the rise, and the responses from this survey show what this could mean for millions of Americans who are facing a new struggle during and after the pandemic.
It’s important for all of us to help raise awareness about recovery resources, address the damaging stigmas surrounding addiction and educate others about healthy ways to cope with mental health concerns effectively. Otherwise, the country could easily see one health crisis transition directly into another.