Coping with COVID-19: Adults turn to alcohol, marijuana

April 22, 2020

ANN ARBOR—Orders to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic have led to more adults consuming alcohol and drugs to cope with stress.

More than one in four adults (28%) said they have used alcohol or drugs to feel better, according to a new University of Michigan study that tracked behaviors a week after the World Health Organization announced the pandemic in mid-March.

Adults are using various coping strategies to deal with mental and physical health concerns related to uncertainty with the pandemic. The concerns include feeling tired or having little energy, trouble sleeping and relaxing, and feeling hopeless and afraid, said Shawna Lee, the report’s lead author and U-M associate professor of social work (faculty associate at RCGD). She collaborated on the report with doctoral student Kaitlin Ward.

The sample included responses from 562 adults (both parents and nonparents)—many who indicated high levels of depression and anxiety in the previous two weeks.

“A large number of adults are facing economic uncertainty, financial concerns and social isolation because of the pandemic. It may not be not be surprising to see alcohol and drug use rise as a result. Another worry is the elevated levels of depression and anxiety,” said Lee.

For many adults, close relationships are a source of both support and stress. While the majority of respondents (71%) said they have felt emotionally closer to their partner than usual since the pandemic, about 1 in 5 reported disagreements with their partner related to coronavirus, 19% reported more disagreements than usual and 15% reported more verbal fights than usual. Experts worry that the pandemic will contribute to an uptick in domestic violence.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Nearly all respondents were engaging in social distancing, but fewer were in lockdown or social isolation. When asked about worries associated with the Coronavirus, 47% indicated they worry they can’t afford to pay bills and 53% worry that money will run out.
  • About 22% said they are using alcohol more, and 1 in 7 said they used marijuana more since the pandemic began.
  • Symptoms of depression were high: 2 out of 3 reported feeling tired or having little energy, trouble sleeping and feeling hopeless. About 32% of respondents had symptoms that would indicate major depression.
  • At least 50% reported symptoms of anxiety nearly every day or several days a week since the pandemic. Approximately 32% of respondents had symptoms that would indicate mild anxiety, about 19% for moderate anxiety and 17% for severe anxiety.
  • In the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, symptoms of depression and anxiety were much higher than would be expected in the general population. However, respondents also said they were using coping mechanisms such as acceptance (96% of respondents), taking action to make the situation better (89%), and turning to work other activities to take their minds off things (84%).

As disruptions to daily life worsen, mental health professionals need to be prepared for an increase in mental health and substance use problems, Lee said.

Study: Mental Health, Relationships, and Coping during the Coronavirus Pandemic
Shawna Lee
Kaitlin Ward
Parenting in Context Research Lab

Jared Wadley 734-834-7719, [email protected]

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