Substance Use and Abuse, COVID-19-Related Distress, and Disregard for Social Distancing: A Network Analysis

Authored by: Steven Taylor, Michelle M. Paluszek, Geoffrey S. Rachor, Dean McKay, & Gordon J. G. Asmundson

Researchers have identified two extreme types of reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic. At one extreme, people feel very distressed and anxious about COVID-19 (COVID-19-related distress). At the other, people believe the danger of COVID-19 has been exaggerated and they do not follow social distancing recommendations (COVID-19-related disregard). The authors of the current study were interested in how substance use and abuse are related to COVID-19-related distress and disregard. Substance use involves consuming alcohol or drugs, while substance abuse is a dangerous pattern substance use that negatively impacts the individual’s life.

American and Canadian adults completed an online survey in May, 2020. Study participants answered questions about COVID-19-related distress and disregard. They also answered questions about substance abuse and how their substance use compared to before the pandemic. The authors found that about one quarter of people who drank alcohol or used drugs before the pandemic used more alcohol and drugs during the pandemic. For many people, this increase resulted in substance abuse. People with more COVID-19-related distress or more COVID-19-related disregard were more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Specifically, people whose distress involved more severe traumatic stress symptoms (e.g., nightmares) and those whose disregard involved more rejection of social distancing had the most severe substance abuse. The authors suggest that individual (e.g., cognitive-behavioural therapy) and public (e.g., community announcements) might be used to reduce COVID-19-related distress and disregard, which may reduce COVID-19-related substance abuse.

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