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Covid-19 And Addiction: What Happens When A Pandemic And An Epidemic Collide?

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In early 2020, we were faced with a pandemic that rocked our world and for many, completely uprooted their lives. For some, the covid-19 pandemic brought with it not only lockdowns and social isolation, but a significant mental health impact and a resurgence of substance use.

The CDC shared that as of June 2020, 13% of Americans reported either starting or increasing substance use in an effort to cope with the difficult emotions brought on by the pandemic. Online sales of alcohol skyrocketed within the first three months of lockdown alone.

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the collateral damage to mental health and addiction from the fallout of the covid-19 pandemic.

The covid 19 mental health impact

The covid-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health worldwide. In fact, the World Health Organization released a scientific brief in March of 2022 sharing that the covid-19 pandemic triggered a 25% increase in depression and anxiety across the globe.

According to a report shared by the CDC in June 2020, 31% of respondents stated they were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Stress-related symptoms were reported by 26% of respondents, while 11% reported experiencing suicidal ideations over the past 30 days. Research shows that these numbers were double what they were before the pandemic began.

On top of this, crisis intervention hotlines experienced a significant influx of calls during the early days of the pandemic. This signifies the levels of fear, worry, and anxiety brought on by the unfamiliar nature of covid-19.

For many, the covid-19 pandemic triggered all-encompassing feelings of fear. Whether people found themselves worried about their own well-being or the lives of their loved ones, the pandemic put our mortality at the forefront of our lives. The overall uncertainty and anxiety swept across the globe as our lives as we once knew them were placed on a halt.

People became impacted economically, as many across the world lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Healthcare workers endured mental and emotional overload as they had to face seemingly endless work hours, the plight of minimal protective equipment, and the grief of losing patients.

Covid-19 also took away the one saving grace many of us turn to in our times of need - each other. Isolation brought on by the pandemic evoked unbearable feelings of loneliness for many. Loneliness and social isolation can lead to feelings of depression, and for those already struggling with mental health concerns, this can worsen their struggles.

Studies have shown that mental health factors are highly correlated with increased substance use. Research conducted across several countries including the US, Canada, Russia, the UK, and Australia all found that those who had higher rates of depression also experienced increased alcohol use as compared to those without depressive symptoms.

Covid-19 and addiction: an increase in substance abuse during lockdown as a byproduct of isolation

You may be wondering, how has covid affected addiction?

With the pandemic bearing such a significant impact on mental health, it's no wonder that covid affected addiction and the rates of substance use. The dawn of the pandemic brought with it the conditions needed for addiction to thrive.

Research has shown that an increase in stress and anxiety, especially during a disaster, can increase the motivation to engage in substance use as a means of coping.

Below are some of the findings on covid-19 and addiction:

  • Alcohol use increased significantly at the onset of the pandemic.

  • Psychological factors contributing to this increase were anxiety, hopelessness, and social isolation.

  • Social isolation, which was mandated at the time, was also linked to increases in alcohol use.

  • Patient admissions in emergency rooms related to drug use increased during quarantine.

  • Loneliness and feeling socially isolated were linked with experiencing anxiety and depression.

Additionally, studies have shown that feelings of loneliness are correlated with poor mental health. Feeling isolated also has a direct relationship with depression and alcohol use.

During the pandemic, those struggling with addiction may have felt trapped in their homes with no other means of coping. Many people in recovery were now no longer able to attend meetings in person. They were no longer able to meet with their therapist or counselor.

Many people lost access to various healthy coping skills they’d been working on developing, such as going to the gym. Boredom is a common trigger to use for many in early recovery, and with restaurants, movie theaters, bowling alleys, and all forms of recreation shut down, many in recovery had nothing to engage themselves in.

On top of this, connection is a massive part of the recovery process. If addiction is a disease of isolation, then recovery can be found in connection.

Connecting with others helps us feel validated. When we see our struggles reflected in other people, we know that we’re not alone. We know that we’re enduring a shared experience, and that there is hope for things to get better.

However, with the covid-19 pandemic, those struggling in recovery found themselves facing an unforeseen, seemingly insurmountable challenge. They were now physically isolated from, for many, their sole means of support in the form of other people.

Also, research has shown that many people who become addicted to a substance or behavior previously struggled with feelings of loneliness. Whether they felt like an outcast in their community, or simply felt that there was something wrong with them, these feelings of isolation appear to be a common thread for many struggling with addiction.

During the covid-19 pandemic, it's possible that these feelings of isolation were prompted and triggered again for many people, who were now being forced to socially distance themselves from others.

The vicious cycle of addiction and loneliness

The feelings of isolation that many people experienced also brought with them feelings of fear and worry. They prompted feelings of depression. The lack of connection during the pandemic caused these feelings to lead many people into a downward spiral of their own negative thinking, trapped in a place they felt they couldn’t get out of.

This, in turn, prompted many people to either begin engaging in use, or to return to use. In an effort to numb or escape difficult emotions like sadness, loneliness, despair, or confusion, people turned to substances to provide themselves with comfort.

Of course, engaging in substance use doesn’t actually help resolve those difficult emotions, and when that high wore off, people found themselves once again faced with the same fear, worry, loneliness, and despair they felt before they used. Now, however, their emotions were compounded with additional feelings of shame or guilt for engaging in use.

As an added obstacle, addiction fuels loneliness. It can make people feel like they've failed. It can make people feel like there's something wrong with them. Even though they were physically distant from loved ones during the pandemic, they may have begun pulling away emotionally out of shame.

This then makes them feel even more alone, which in turn causes them to perpetuate their substance use. This is a cycle that many people found themselves in at the height of the pandemic.

How has covid affected addiction recovery?

Unfortunately, the covid-19 pandemic brought with it an increase in overdoses. Reports have shown that there was an 18% increase in overdoses in the first several months of the pandemic as compared with this same time frame in 2019. The American Medical Association shared that over 40 states in the US experienced increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began.

Many people experienced a shift to using other substances, if they were unable to obtain what they were previously using. Many people lost their access to support groups and treatment. Many people also experienced relapse due to the increasing burden on their mental health and lack of support.

How has covid affected addiction treatment?

Unfortunately, covid affected addiction treatment services quite significantly, especially during the earlier days of the pandemic. More and more people were struggling with their mental health and their substance use, while treatment services were experiencing significant disruptions.

According to the World Health Organization, mental health and substance use treatment services were the most disrupted during the pandemic. Many rehab centers and peer support groups paused their programs and decreased the number of new admissions they let in. Additional countries across the globe experienced similar conditions, sharing that their mental health services were the most interrupted by the covid-19 pandemic.

Fortunately, access to care began to approve during the latter end of lockdown. Adjustments were made through many healthcare providers as MAT services allowed clients to bring medications, such as methadone, home. Outpatient facilities and peer support groups were able to shift their group sessions from in-person to online, in an effort to help keep people on track and restore a sense of community.

Many agencies around the country advocated the importance of increasing resources to support people’s mental health needs. Many online platforms have developed as a result of the isolation endure during the pandemic, where people in recovery are able to connect with others from anywhere in the world.

Although the covid 19 mental health impact was significant in the lives of many, the new treatment resources that have been developed are certainly a silver lining.

If you or someone you love began engaging in substance use during the pandemic, or experienced a relapse, know that there is always hope for healing.

- David



Read more related articles from us on getting support in recovery from addiction:

David Marion
David Marion (NCRC, NCIP)

Hi, I’m David Marion. I’m a Nationally Certified Recovery Coach, Nationally Certified Intervention Professional, Addiction Recovery Speaker, Author of Addiction Rescue: The No- BS Guide to Recovery, Sober Companion, & Sober Escort.

If you or your loved one is interested in recovery coaching, book a free call with me today.

It’s time to finally break free from addiction and create the life you deserve.


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