The impact of COVID-19 on alcohol and other drug use at work is proving to be a long term problem. With the stress of the pandemic, many people have turned to substance abuse to cope.
We’ve seen similar trends happen after highly traumatic events. For example, the number of Australians who drank alcohol increased following the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Alcohol consumption rates also jumped after the horrific Queensland floods in 2011.
How can public health officials deal with the growing threat of substance abuse during COVID-19? What can state and federal government officials do to help?
Surge in alcohol and other drug use during COVID-19
Health experts have called on the Victorian government to bolster state services for drug and alcohol abuse. They fear that people might turn to substance abuse as a coping mechanism for the trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a scenario could cause the number of drug and alcohol abuse cases to spike.
Sector leaders in the state believe the fallout of the coronavirus on substance abuse could continue for the next few years. They compared the pandemic to other tragedies such as the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires and the 2011 Queensland floods.
In both events, drug and alcohol cases in the country saw a significant increase.
Sam Biondo, Executive Officer of the Victorian Alcohol and Drug Association, said the COVID-19 pandemic had created new drug users. It also pushed functioning addicts over the edge.
“We also know during times of catastrophe, be it bushfires, floods …. the level of consumption increases as the legacy to deal with that trauma lives on with people,” Mr Biondo said.
“They turn to alcohol and other substances … and sometimes into trouble.”
Impact of tragedies on substance abuse trends
Nearly one in four people turned to alcoholism following the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, according to a Melbourne University study. The trend was mostly seen among those living in communities heavily affected by the disaster.
Meanwhile, Brisbane residents affected by the 2011 Queensland floods were 4.5 times more likely to drink than those unaffected. This was based on a study featured on the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
Health experts have identified multiple stressors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and lock down. These include:
- Risk of infection
- Social isolation
- Financial difficulties
- Loss of structure
These stresses are particularly devastating to people with existing problems, such as drug and alcohol addiction. They often use their substance abuse to cope with the stress from their situation.
The number of people seeking treatment for substance abuse also increased. Addiction medicine experts at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney saw a steady increase in their patient numbers during the pandemic.
“What we have seen is some of our clients who were quite stable have destabilised over this period of time,” Dr Yvonne Bonomo of St Vincent’s said.
“We’ve also got new presentations … COVID has kind of unmasked problems that were just bubbling along.”
COVID-19 laws keep alcohol and other drug use patients from seeking help
When the coronavirus first hit Australia early this year, the government adopted lock down measures to prevent its spread. It helped discourage people from going outdoors unnecessarily.
However, the move also had the unintended effect of keeping drug and alcohol users from seeking proper help. It may have also pushed some addicts to engage in riskier behaviours.
Harm Reduction Victoria chief Sione Crawford point to the public health laws for creating an unstable marketplace. He believes that the measures led to all sorts of opportunities for harm, including overdoses. Needle-syringe programs participants also found themselves being fined at quite a high rate for going out.
Mr Crawford said it was unrealistic to expect people to go cold turkey on their drug and alcohol addiction. Such a sudden withdrawal from their habit could cause patients to become very sick. For those suffering from alcohol and benzodiazepine addiction, it could even lead to their deaths.
To address the situation, Mr Biondo said state services must be integrated and boosted. He stressed that many drug and alcohol users have delayed seeking treatment because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, other people developed their substance abuse problems during the COVID-19 lock down.
You can read more about the Victorian health experts’ call for better state services here.
Dealing with alcohol and other drug use during COVID-19
There is a close connection between social trauma and widespread increases in drug and alcohol consumption.
In the past, we’ve experienced a marked and often sustained rise in alcohol and illicit drug consumption after significant events. These include financial recessions and natural disasters. We’ve seen an increase in usage across most drug categories such as sedating opiates, mood-elevating drugs and the various stimulants.
Drug and alcohol consumption can also increase even when the trauma is only short-lived. Following the Queensland floods in 2011, we saw a four and a half fold rise in alcohol drinking.
Now that we’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re faced with new challenges. The stresses associated with the coronavirus have contributed to a rise in psychological stress. However, they are particularly devastating for vulnerable people and those with a history of drug dependency.
We’ve already experienced a 31% increase in anti-anxiety medication use. There has also been a 13-22% rise in antidepressant prescriptions over the first 6 months of 2020 (Hendrie 2020).
Workplace drug and alcohol safety
As noted by Victorian health experts, COVID-19 restrictions have discouraged people from seeking help. These measures have also made it difficult for patients to access such help. Australia already had a substantial drug and alcohol abuse problem, which the pandemic will have worsened.
It is unrealistic to expect all people to suddenly draw back their drug and alcohol use once they start returning to work. This will have an impact on workplace safety.
New research states there has been nearly a one-third drop in worksite attendance this year (Roy Morgan Research 29 June 2020).
However, there has only been a 6.4% reduction in worksite fatalities compared to 2019 (Safework Australia 2020). This implies that the worksite death and accident rate per worker has increased significantly during COVID-19.
With all these challenges, the need for workplace drug and alcohol testing is clearer than ever.