Fear of COVID-19 Intensifies Risk of Substance Abuse

Coronavirus pandemic has set off an upcoming wave of mental health illnesses, raising worries for risk of substance abuse, according to new research conducted by Michael Zvolensky, at University of Houston Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic.

It is feared that long after development of Covid-19 vaccine, impact of Covid-19 on mental health will continue to linger for years to come, inflicting persistent damage to mental health if not addressed. These research findings were published in the Psychiatry Research.

The 2019 outbreak of the novel coronavirus has had a devastating impact on mental and physical health as well as economical infrastructure. The considerable negative impact on economy is one of the ensuing impacts of Covid-19, resulting in loss of income and employment for millions of people worldwide. Consequently, it has significantly impacted mental health, give rise to mental health disorders, including stress, anxiety, depression, worry, and substance use. Negative reinforcement models of substance use propose that stress alleviation from Covid-19 is critical to prevent substance use to avoid Covid-19 related stress for a subset of the population.

Source: McKinsey and Company

In the study, Zvolensky developed a model, explaining how Covid-19 related stress may have associated with increasing burden of substance use such as, alcohol, cigarette, opioid, etc.  He proposed how substance abuse during this time could significantly impact mental health, giving rise to mental illnesses. He used the model to investigate whether Covid-19 related worries are related to substance use coping motives and how levels of Covid-19 related fears differ considerably between pre-Covid-19 substance users, Covid-19 substance initiators, and abstainers.

Source: WHO

Researchers recruited up to 160 adults nationally between April-May 2020 for an online study, including 43.48% female with mean age 37.93 years. Participants were asked to fill an online survey, answering question regarding substance use, substance use history, substance use to cope stress, Covid-19 induced stress, worry, and fear.

Results indicated that Covid-19 related worry and fear is associated with the substance abuse for coping stress. Additionally, relative to abstainers, substance users before pandemic, and substance initiators during pandemic demonstrated the highest levels of worry and fear.

These findings raise a serious concern, emphasizing the need to address the behavioural pattern to address the Covid-19 related stress and the respective coping motives of substance abuse. It further warns about future silent waves of mental health disorders in years to come.

Zvolensky in Behaviour Research and Therapy explained, “Those at greater risk are those that have mental health vulnerabilities or disorders.”

He further added, “The future wave of mental health, addiction and worsening health problems in our society is not going to go away, even with a vaccination.”

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