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Explainer: Alcohol abuse and drug overdoses rose during the COVID-19 pandemic

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March 18, 2022

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every family in America. Some are still dealing with the aftermath of the disease. But the problem of substance abuse exacerbated by the pandemic might be a problem that lasts longer than the coronavirus.

The pandemic — as well as related policies to mitigate the spread of the virus — aggravated a host of factors that tend to increase the risk for substance abuse. For example, many people experienced sudden loss of income and employment and an increase in time spent at home alone or with dependents, leading to increased levels of stress. The result, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes, is that researchers have observed increases in substance use and drug overdoses in the United States since the pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020. 

Increased abuse of alcohol

The National Institute on Drug Abuse looked at the monthly per capita sales of alcoholic beverages in 14 states and compared sales in 2020 or 2021 compared to the 2017–2019 3-year average. They found that the percentage change in sales for all alcoholic beverages peaked with a 15% increase, and sales of spirits peaked at a 30% increase. 

This increase in sales is reflected in the surveys on consumption. A survey sponsored by RTI International conducted in May 2020 showed overall increases in alcohol consumption, with women, people with minor children in the home, and Black Americans disproportionately increasing their drinking in the short term after COVID-19 started. Compared with February 2020, average monthly consumption in April and November 2020 increased by 36% and 39%, respectively. Corresponding increases for the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines were 27% and 39%, and increases for binge drinking were 26% and 30%.

Using the estimated 166,052,940 people aged 21 or older nationally who drank in 2019, this translates to an increase from February to November 2020 of 1 billion more drinks per month, with 14.6 million more people exceeding drinking guidelines, and 9 million more people binge drinking in November 2020 compared with February 2020. 

According to the survey, the proportion exceeding drinking guidelines between February and November 2020 increased by 54% for women and by 32% for men, with more women than men exceeding recommended drinking guidelines between April and November 2020. The proportion of binge drinking between February and November 2020 also increased by 42% for women and by 32% for men. The largest increases in consumption during this period were for Black and Hispanic women (173% and 148%, respectively), Black men (173%), men of other races (209%), and women with children younger than age 5 (323%). 

The percentage of respondents with mental health issues who reported drinking to cope increased from 5% in February to 15% in November, and the percentage of those who drank for enhancement increased from 6% in February to 16.5% in November. 

Increase in drug overdoses

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a reporting system called ODMAP found that the early months of the pandemic brought an 18% increase nationwide in overdoses compared with those same months in 2019. The trend has continued throughout 2020, and more than 40 U.S. states saw increases in opioid-related mortality. 

In an interview with the APA, Mandy Owens, a researcher at the University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, says she’s observed a spike in substance use that includes an increase in both quantity and frequency of drug use during the pandemic. There also appears to be a substitution effect, as the quarantines, lockdowns, and other restrictions made access to certain substances such as heroin more difficult. For example, Owens says Washington state has seen an uptick in the use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s increasingly produced illicitly, due to a shift in drug supply availability. 

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), the “nation’s drug overdose epidemic continues to change and become worse.” That AMA finds that one prevailing theme is the fact that the epidemic now is driven by illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often in combination or in adulterated forms.

A survey published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that 47% of respondents indicated their substance use had increased during COVID-19, and 38% said they believed they were at higher risk of overdose due to supply disruptions that made drugs more expensive, harder to get, and of unknown origin. Seven percent of survey respondents also indicated they had relapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to find help

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a National Helpline that is free, confidential, and provides treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. SAMHSA’s National Helpline can be reached by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357), via text message at 435748 (HELP4U), or TTY at 1-800-487-4889. 

As Christians, we should be ready and willing to care for those who come to us with a substance abuse problem. We can point them to the forgiveness and hope found in Christ while walking with them along the hard road to sobriety. Let’s pray that those who are struggling would get the help they need, find community in the body of Christ, and find freedom in the Savior.