Studies Show Alcohol, Cannabis Use Increases with Pandemic Related Stress and Anxiety
Seventy years ago in 1951, Canada’s first Mental Health Week was introduced. This recognition was a long time coming, given that awareness of mental health illness has been around for centuries and the first mental health clinic opened in Canada in the early 1900s. However, only within the last few decades have efforts to remove the stigma around mental illness and provide proactive support gained mainstream attention and traction.
1 in 5 Canadians Experience a Mental Health Challenge Every Year
Today, we have more tools, information and resources available, both in the community and through our employers, to help us address and care for our own mental health and wellness. Even still, in any given year, approximately 1 in 5 people in Canada will experience a mental health problem or illness according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Furthermore, it is estimated that 10-20% of youth in Canada are affected by a mental illness or disorder. Regardless of age, many people turn to substance use to help them cope with or manage a mental health issue.
Studies continue to reveal the link between mental illness and substance use. In fact, people who experience a mental illness are more likely than others to also experience a substance use problem, and vice versa. The CMHA cites a study that indicates that “about half of people with one type of problem have the other type of problem, too.”
Personal Circumstances Play a Big Role in Mental Health
While physical factors like genes or changes in the brain can increase the risk of both mental illness and a substance use problem, external factors also play a significant role. Personal circumstances, both within our control and out of our control, impact our mental health and well-being. For example, our living or working situation, family dynamics, social influencers, income, trauma, pain – these all can factor into a person developing concurrent problems with mental health and substance use. As legal, readily available commodities, alcohol and cannabis remain the top two substances used by Canadians to cope with a short-term or long-term mental health problem.
Then, Throw a Pandemic into the Mix…
The COVID-19 lockdowns are a prime example of circumstances that cause people to turn to substance use to help deal with mental challenges. In May 2020, early on in the pandemic, a Nanos poll conducted for the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) found that 1 in 5 Canadians reported their alcohol consumption had increased since being at home more due to public health measures and restrictions. The poll also found that 1 in 10 people were drinking alcohol more often than in the month before. Stress and boredom were the most frequently mentioned reasons for consuming alcohol more often, followed by a lack of regular schedule and loneliness.
On the cannabis side of things, a CAMH-led study conducted in May and June 2020 and published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that among those who used cannabis, just over half (52%) said they were consuming more cannabis compared to before the pandemic. People who said they were “somewhat worried about the pandemic’s impact on personal finances” were more likely to have increased their cannabis use.
Mental Health Challenges and Substance Use Amplified by Pandemic
Further into the pandemic, a Leger survey conducted on behalf of the CCSA and the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) tracked the relationship between mental health and substance use across a number of different populations between October 2020 and March 2021. Among its insights, the survey found 34% of people with substance use concerns also reported severe depression symptoms; and 36% with mental health concerns reported increased alcohol use.
The same survey highlighted the intersection between mental health and substance use among people living with young children during the pandemic. Since November 2020, 37% of females and 24% of males in this group experienced moderate to severe anxiety. For the same group, 37% of females and 26% of males reported an increased use of alcohol, while 48% of females and 37% of males reported an increase in their use of cannabis.
Impact on Hospitals and Healthcare
Not surprising, the increase in substance use is also having an effect on hospitalization numbers. Christina Lawand, a senior researcher with the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), told CBC News that “the pandemic has created a perfect storm of factors driving up the numbers.” The CIHI released a report in May 2021 on hospital visits due to substance use during the pandemic. From March 2020 through September 2020, around 81,000 Canadians needed hospital care due to harmful substance use – an increase of 4,000 compared to the same period in 2019. The additional pressures of the pandemic on people’s mental health was cited as a factor in causing more substance use.
Awareness, Access to Resources on the Rise
Even though the pandemic has shed light on the relationship between mental illness and substance use, the interconnection between the two is certainly not new, nor will it diminish once the pandemic subsides. The pandemic has simply amplified our awareness of this link that was always there. Through research, studies and surveys, we continue to hear and learn more about mental health and addiction. This in turn fuels the access to better information, support and resources for those struggling with a mental health issue, substance use, or both.
Corridor’s Alcohol & Drugs in the Workplace course covers the impacts of substance use and addiction, including the toll it can take on mental health. Similarly, our free training Mental Health Awareness & COVID-19 includes how to recognize when coping strategies are no longer healthy and it’s time to seek support. The more we learn, the more we can understand what these illnesses are all about, have empathy for people struggling with them, and “normalize” requests for help through our employers, community services and health care professionals.