Substance use and abuse associated with the behavioral immune system during COVID-19: The special case of healthcare workers and essential workers

Authored By: Dean McKay and Gordon J. G. Asmundson

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers and other essential workers (e.g., grocery store, food delivery, and postal employees) are faced with unprecedented levels of stress, including increased risk of infection. To provide meaningful intervention to frontline workers who are struggling to cope effectively with these stressors, clinical researchers must also identify the ineffective strategies that these individuals are currently using.

The COVID Stress Scales are a psychological tool for measuring the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected a person’s psychological wellbeing. There are five different areas of COVID related stress that this scale measures: danger and contamination fear, social and economic stress, traumatic stress symptoms, checking and reassurance seeking behaviour, and xenophobia. Elevations across each of these areas form a newly identified psychological syndrome referred to as the COVID Stress Syndrome. Research has shown that each of the factors that make up this syndrome are associated with increased risk of problematic alcohol and substance use.

The authors of this editorial raise concern that the COVID-related stressors faced by healthcare and other essential workers may increase their risk of engaging in problematic alcohol and substance use. Throughout this editorial, the authors provide an integrated discussion and critical analysis of this issue using theory, research, and practice. The authors emphasis the need to develop unique interventions for healthcare and other essential workers that can incorporate strategies for coping with alcohol and substance use and misuse, in the face of present pandemic-related circumstances, post-COVID-19, and during future pandemics to come.

Lay summary written by: Julia Mason.

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