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Young People's Mental Health, Covid, and Drug Use

There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it a wide range of struggles, hardships, mental crises, financial troubles, and endless day-to-day problems for many UK families. The mental hardships connected to Covid-19 and the real-life challenges posed by the pandemic has pushed many UK residents to use drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism.

While there has been a great deal of reporting on the effect that Covid-19 had on the adult population, how have UK youths been fairing during Covid?

People Who Use Drugs are More at Risk for Covid-19

New scientific research has revealed that people who use drugs and alcohol are not only more likely to contract Covid-19, but they're more likely to experience particularly severe and debilitating symptoms if they do contract it.

Borrowing from data published by Dr. Nora Volkow the director of America's National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape. People with opioid use disorder (OUD) and methamphetamine use disorder may also be vulnerable due to those drugs' effects on respiratory and pulmonary health. Additionally, individuals with a substance use disorder are more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than those in the general population, and these circumstances pose unique challenges regarding transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19."

People who use drugs and alcohol often experience life circumstances that would put them in harm's way for contracting Covid-19 (homelessness, lack of access to health services, housing, hygiene products, healthy food and supplements, etc.) Furthermore, because drug and alcohol abuse attacks the immune system and the body's natural ability to fight infection, people who experiment with mind-altering substances are more likely to suffer severe symptoms if they contract Covid-19.

Again quoting Dr. Volkow: “Limited access to health care places people with addiction at greater risk for many illnesses, but if hospitals and clinics are pushed to their capacity, it could be that people with addiction—who are already stigmatized and underserved by the healthcare system—will experience even greater barriers to treatment for COVID-19. Homelessness or incarceration can expose people to environments where they are in close contact with others who might also be at higher risk for infections.”

From that information, we can see that people who use drugs and alcohol are in a unique situation, a crisis of sorts. They are more likely to experience unique struggles and hardships during a nationwide public health emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic.

UK Substance Abuse Statistics Got Much Worse During the Pandemic

New statistics from government agencies and independent researchers revealed that alcohol-related deaths soared in England and Wales during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a paper published in the British Medical Journal, "An urgent inquiry is needed to understand why deaths from alcohol hit record levels in England and Wales in the first nine months of 2020. Provisional data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) covers the period during and after the first lockdown last year. These show there were 5460 deaths related to alcohol specific causes registered between January and September 2020—a 16.4% increase compared with the same nine month period in 2019 (4689 deaths)."

While the statistics do not directly prove an association between alcohol deaths and the mental health effects of the pandemic, it's likely there is an association. An article in the Guardian pointed out that alcohol-related deaths during the pandemic were much more common in impoverished areas, deprived communities already suffering before the pandemic.

Experts hypothesized that alcohol misuse crept up in these communities as the residents of such communities struggled even more than usual, primarily because of the far-reaching, negative effects of Covid-19. Experts believe that many residents of such communities began drinking more alcohol during the pandemic as a coping mechanism for the serious hardships they were now going through (as a direct result of the pandemic).

From the Guardian, “The rise in the alcohol-specific death rate started in April as the UK entered its first lockdown, increasing sharply each quarter. The death rate in October to December 2020 was 28% higher than the same period the previous year, and the highest recorded rate of any three-month period since 2001. The figures reflect deeply entrenched health inequalities: the alcohol-specific death rate for men was 4.2 times higher in the most deprived areas, at 34.1 deaths per 100,000, compared with 8.1 in the most affluent areas. Alcohol deaths among women in the most deprived communities were three times higher at 15 per 100,000, compared with five in the least deprived areas.”

There's no doubt about it, UK residents drank more alcohol during the pandemic, even though doing so had devastating consequences for their health.

Young People are at Risk during the Pandemic, Both for Mental Health Challenges and Drug Use

One area that does not get enough attention is the effect that the pandemic had on young people's mental health and substance abuse patterns. According to the UK government's statistics and reporting department, at least 14,000 UK youths misuse drugs and alcohol. Cannabis remains the most common substance that young people use, but about 4 in 10 youths also have a problem with alcohol. About 14% report using ecstasy, and 10% report using cocaine.

The same UK data reporting agency cited above also reported that young people in the UK insisted that mental health is a serious issue that exacerbated their substance abuse problems. Put another way, mental health and substance abuse is closely connected for young people. Quoting the above UK statistics reporting agency, “Almost a third of young people (32%) who started treatment this year said they had a mental health treatment need, which is higher than last year (27%). A higher proportion of girls reported a mental health treatment need than boys (42% compared to 28%).”

Children, adolescents, teens, and young adults are more at risk for experimenting with drugs and alcohol now than perhaps ever before. That's why parents and teachers must do their part to ensure that young people do not begin using drugs and alcohol.

Parents and Teachers Must Protect Youth from Experimenting with Drugs

Parents and teachers need to help prevent young people from using drugs and alcohol. One study found that one of the reasons why UK youths may be more at-risk for substance abuse now than they were before is because they spent the pandemic locked down at home with their parents, (and if their parents drank alcohol or used drugs, that would have a compulsory, suggestive effect on the youths). Quoting the researchers, “Regardless of whether parents drink more alcohol in covid-19 lockdown, their children are far more likely to see them drink simply because they are all at home. And this is happening at a time when substantial evidence indicates the intergenerational transmission of alcohol habits and alcohol misuse through parental role modelling.”

The above is an example of the exact opposite effect that parents should have on their kids. The same goes for teachers. Teachers, educators, coaches, tutors, counsellors, and opinion leaders must endeavour to set a good example for young people, not a negative one. Educators can do this by delivering seminars to their students to teach them the truth about drugs and alcohol, how substance abuse harms mental health, physical health, and one's future.

Parents have to set a good example for their kids, and they must do their part to teach their kids responsibility, good morals, and goal-setting. Parents can also work hand-in-hand with educators by having regular conversations with their children about drugs and alcohol, what these substances are, why they're harmful, and how to effectively respond to the peer pressure from other young people for one to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Even though Covid-19 brought immense harm to UK residents, young and old alike, the good news is that UK families and schools can take effective measures to prevent community members from using drugs and alcohol. Getting informed on drugs, working together, sharing information, talking about the issues, and addressing underlying mental health challenges all greatly improve responsibility levels and all serve to help young people achieve their goals.

When families and school groups work together to create safe and drug-free environments, the future looks much brighter.


by Ren Brabenec

After several years of valuable experience as an employee at an addiction treatment center, Ren now works as a drug and alcohol research specialist and writer. He’s written over 6 million words on drugs, alcohol, addiction, and how substance abuse affects young people, families, and our society. Ren is focused on using his skills and knowledge as an author and addiction counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. You can connect with Ren on LinkedIn.

Posted on Thursday 12th August 2021

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