Blog: Loneliness and Substance Use During COVID-19

February 1, 2021

Blog post by Aastha Tripathi, practicum student

The rapid emergence of COVID-19 and national efforts to minimize its spread have severely disrupted the lives of Canadians. To contain the spread of COVID-19, the federal government has advised Canadians to stay at home and shelter-in-place since March 2020. In response, many of us have adapted by working from home, staying at home except to get necessities, wearing face masks, and avoiding large social groups. For most Canadians, this is the first time experiencing unwanted and prolonged separation from the vital and deeply human aspect of social interaction.  These separation periods can increase feelings of loneliness—a key contributor to mental health issues such as substance abuse and depression. [1]

A Nanos poll commissioned by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Abuse found that 20% of Canadians who adhered to social distancing protocols reported drinking alcohol once a day in May 2020.  [2] Furthermore, one in ten Canadians reported that they had been drinking a larger quantity of alcohol in May compared to the previous month. [2] Alarmingly, 8% of Canadians indicated that they were unable to stop consumption on at least one occasion once they started. [2] Though consuming alcohol or cannabis can provide temporary relief to stress and anxiety [3], studies show that regular use of these substances can increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD) or cannabis use disorder (CUD)—especially due to stresses during a pandemic. [4] Furthermore, individuals with a history of mental health disorders or problematic substance use are at an elevated risk of developing AUD and CUD when facing stressful situations. [5] Loneliness can lead to frequent and heavier substance consumption for some individuals, which can intensify feelings of loneliness, creating a vicious cycle. [6]

Acknowledging the problem is the first step to combat it. We must recognize that increased loneliness is an expected and probable consequence of the current stay at home measures. It is essential that COVID-19 relief efforts geared towards mental health target the removal of stigma surrounding those who admit to feeling lonely. Thankfully, there are resources such as Edmonton’s 24/7 Distress Helpline (managed by the Canadian Mental Health Association). There is also information on substance abuse and COVID-19 curated by the University of Alberta and the Assembly of First Nations. Though this prolonged social isolation has increased feelings of loneliness, it is crucial to remember that help is always available and accessible.

References

[1] Stickley, A., & Koyanagi, A. (2016). Loneliness, common mental disorders and suicidal behaviour: Findings from a general population survey. Journal of Affective Disorders, 197, 81-87.

[2] Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. (2020). Boredom and stress drives increased alcohol consumption during COVID-19: Nanos poll summary report. https://www.ccsa.ca/sites/default/files/2020-06/CCSA-NANOS-Increased-Alcohol-Consumption-During-COVID-19-Report-2020-en_0.pdf

[3] Eckardt, M.J., File, S.E., Gessa, G.L., Grant, K.A., Guerri, C., Hoffman, P.L., Kalant, H., Koob, H., Li, T.K., & Tabakoff, B. (1998). Effects of moderate alcohol consumption on the central nervous system. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research, 22(5), 998-1040.

[4] Sinha, R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141, 105–130.

 [5] Andersen, S. L. (2019). Stress, sensitive periods, and substance abuse. Neurobiology of Stress, 10.

 [6] Leigh-Hunt, N., Bagguley, D., Bash, K., Turner, V., Turnbull, S., Valtorta, N., & Caan, W. (2017). An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Public Health, 152, 157–171.

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