October 3rd, 2021- By Siobhan Bahl
Siobhan Bahl examines the impact of lockdown and the pandemic overall on drug and alcohol consumption, and the measures being taken or considered to prevent a rise in abuse.
The first round of lockdowns defined the summer of 2020, and shaped how we spent the warmer, lighter, longer days laid before us. Regardless of the pandemic, for many of us warmer days pair perfectly with a cool beer or a fresh jug of Pimm’s. But life within a world-wide crisis meant instead of going to the pub, the pub moved into the home. Now over a year on, and with the gradual ease into ‘normality’, striking statistics are emerging on changes in substance usage.
Data from a Public Health England report detailed that ‘off-trade’ alcohol sales, purchases for at-home consumption, increased by 24.4 per cent between 2019 to 2021. The report also includes an alarming statistic that between March 2020-2021 there was a 58.6 per cent increase in the proportion of people drinking at high risk levels. However, the report does outline a polarisation in drinking practices. Those that drank more before the pandemic seem to have increased their consumption more, while most surveyed respondents reported drinking the same volume or even less.
There was no horrific hungover walk to campus to act as the voice of temperance “
For students, life became dramatically quiet. The usual intensity of opportunities to socialise plummeted, leaving a tangible gap. There is no denying that alcohol and substance consumption plays a large role in many student’s university experience and the closure of pubs and clubs wasn’t going to stop this. There simply wasn’t much else to do. In response to the daily ritualised question ‘What do you want to do this evening?’ there were few answers: TV? Drink? TV and Drink? Smoke? Smoke and Eat?
In bringing the party into the student house, young adults found themselves in an environment that lent itself to testing the limits. Within the walls of your own house, with your bed upstairs, without the need to sneak in illegal substances or queue for the bar again and again, it is no wonder young adults experimented in the substance world. And, with lectures online, there was no horrific hungover walk to campus to act as the voice of temperance.
Across the UK there was a 44 per cent increase in the use of cannabis, and according to the Global Drug survey, cannabis and prescription sedatives use soared while party drug use dropped dramatically. It is more than likely that the usage of party drugs will rise with the opening of clubs, but it is worth reflecting on cannabis’ success during the most severe lockdowns as COVID-19 has taken a serious toll on mental health.
Faced with the unprecedented and unrelenting lifestyle changes of the pandemic, the daily announcement of deaths, the number rising and rising, many people developed issues like anxiety and depression. Being cut off from family and friends and unable to access in person professional help, individuals suffering were suddenly cut off from effective support networks. It is therefore not surprising that many began to self-medicate, and cannabis has long been used as a stress reliever: according to the Global Drug Survey, 41 per cent cited stress and 38 per cent cited depressions as reasons for strapping up a joint.
We shouldn’t be so quick to catalogue the pandemic cannabis surge as a consequence of boredom- instead, maybe we should assess its merit in helping people cope with the pressures of pandemic life. Drug use will never go away, and the shifts in drug trends in response to the pandemic shows how substance use acts in response to daily events and stresses. People will use substance in reaction to life’s pressures, so the appropriate resources and guidelines should be made accessible to ensure that this self prescribed form of treatment for mental stresses and anxieties remains a safe form of coping and doesn’t tip into drug abuse.
In regards to alcohol practices, it is not so reliable to use the student population as an accurate measure for the changing landscape of alcohol consumption post-lockdown life. It is not unknown that student populations on the whole drink excessively. In 2018, a NUS poll revealed that 79 per cent of students agree that drinking and getting drunk is apart of University culture, and that 23 per cent get drunk 2-3 days a week. The question of student alcohol abuse belongs to the wider debate surrounding University culture, not solely the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether these changes in drug and alcohol habits will outlast the pandemic remains to be seen “
Tackling alcohol harm must be an integral part of the nations recovery, and the groups that require greater attention are those who already struggled with alcohol dependency prior to the pandemic, and those propelled into alcoholism due to bereavement, job insecurity and domestic violence compounded by lockdown changes and restrictions. Reintroducing support groups and rehabilitation programmes is vital, particularly to the first group. However, the government must devise a way of doing this that doesn’t rely on a drop in COVID-19 hospital admissions to free up NHS capacity to deliver these services. The NHS is already backlogged on cancer treatments, delayed surgeries and more- adding another to this list puts the axe into the hand of the NHS’ executioner.
Granted, this is a difficult task. Virtual support groups only offer so much, and Zoom meetings lack the personal connection often required. Moreover, the chronic understaffing of the UK’s healthcare institutions isn’t an immediate fix. But the Public Health England report must be heeded as the warning shot which it is, and responding quickly to factors inducing alcoholism would enable the government to buffer the number of people falling into alcohol dependency. Offering proper bereavement support, advertising and funding domestic abuse help lines and getting people back into employment may help curb the frightening statistics.
However, whether these changes in drug and alcohol habits will outlast the pandemic remains to be seen. Time may have to be left to tell. Will the trends in substance abuse persist in a post-pandemic world, whenever that may be? Or will the rise in substance use be a ‘new normal’ that has be radically unpicked from the habits of society?