Drinking Down, Depression Up Among Young People During COVID-19

Article

The reduction in heavy drinking in individuals between 18-25 years old is likely due to government restrictions on social gatherings.

Meenu Minhas, McMaster

Meenu Minhas, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a lot of concern over substance abuse and mental health issues, particularly among the younger population.

However, a new study shows drinking rates are actually down during the pandemic in a sample of 18-25 year old Ontario residents, while mental health issues including depression, stress, and anxiety remain a concern.

A team, led by Meenu Minhas, Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research, St Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, McMaster University, examined changes in dirking-related outcomes, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as the differences in changes by sex and income loss between an intra-pandemic time period and pre-pandemic measures.

A Fresh Look

The majority of studies exploring the substance use rates and mental health issues during the pandemic have been cross-sectional. However, the McMaster study involved a sample of emerging adults over a two-week period during the pandemic.

The study included 473 emerging adults with a mean age of 23.84 years old that were enrolled in an existing longitudinal study on alcohol misuse. The patients were assessed between June 17 and July 1, 2020, during acute public health restrictions in Ontario. The intra-pandemic data was matched to participant pre-pandemic reports, which were collected an average of 5 months earlier.

The investigators assessed validated measures of drinking, alcohol-related consequences, and mental health indicators.

A Reduction in Alcohol Misuse

The results show a significant reduction in heavy drinking and adverse alcohol consequences, which was not moderated by sex or income loss. However, there was substantial heterogeneity in the changes.

Some potential reasons for the decrease in alcohol use include socializing restrictions, as well as a reduction of individuals living with roommates or in group living situations as peer influence is usually a strong predictor of alcohol misuse.

"The study participants were young people, who typically drink in social settings," Minhas said in a statement. "If you take away bars, restaurants, and group events, like parties, it's not surprising that binge drinking in this group goes down too."

Troubling Depression Trends

On the other hand, the investigators found significant increases in continuous measures of depression and anxiety present, which were both moderated by sex. Overall, females, which made up 59% of the study population, reported significantly larger increases in depression and anxiety. In addition, income loss of more than 50% was significantly associated with increases in depression.

“During the initial phase of the pandemic, reductions in heavy drinking and alcohol consequences were present in this sample of emerging adults, perhaps due to restrictions on socializing,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, there was an increase in internalizing symptoms , especially in females, highlighting disparities in the mental health impacts of the pandemic.”

The study, “COVID-19 impacts on drinking and mental health in emerging adults: Longitudinal changes and moderation by economic disruption and sex,” was published online in Alcoholism Clinical & Experimental Research.

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