People actually drinking less during pandemic; women more depressed: Hamilton-based researcher

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Published June 4, 2021 at 6:53 pm

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A new study on heavy drinking and the psychological impact of the pandemic has revealed findings that the authors are calling “unexpected.”

Some say the new findings may even lead researchers to rethink the way the effects of COVID-19 are being studied.

In a sample of nearly 500 young adults ranging in age from 18 to 25, researchers saw a reduction in problematic drinking and alcohol consequences during the initial phase of the pandemic for both men and women.

The findings are in contrast to others reports of increased drinking and increased household spending on alcohol during that time period.

Most surprising, however, were the additional findings that showed increased rates of depression and anxiety symptoms among young women, especially.

“These results reveal the complexity of the pandemic impacts,” said senior author James MacKillop, director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research of McMaster University and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, as well as a professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster.

Researchers believe that restrictions on socializing contributed to the reduction of precarious alcohol use observed in this age group. There has also been a decrease in the number of individuals living as roommates, decreasing peer influence overall.

“The study participants were young people, who typically drink in social settings,” said Meenu Minhas, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow at the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research. “If you take away bars, restaurants, and group events, like parties, it’s not surprising that binge drinking in this group goes down too.”

Meanwhile, the reported increase of mental health symptoms in the study demonstrates some of the negative consequences associated with the pandemic.

Among study participants, women showed a significant increase in the likelihood of meeting the threshold for clinical depression. A similar effect was not found in male participants.

“We saw high levels of pandemic-related stress, irritability, sadness, which unfortunately were felt more strongly by females,” said Minhas.

“Although certain public health measures were important in controlling the spread of the virus, the benefits of social support and interaction, which often act as buffers against the effects of stress, have also been reduced due to the pandemic,” explained MacKillop.

Income loss due to the pandemic also had an impact on higher depression scores, with those reporting greater than 50 percent income loss experiencing significant increases in depressive symptoms.

Researchers see this as a direct link between economic impacts and adverse mental health outcomes. They argue that government strategies that provide economic assistance may effectively act as an antidepressant when it comes to pandemic impacts on mental health.

Where this study differs from others is that this one accounts for changes over time. Data was tracked before and during the pandemic, which allows the researchers to differentiate contrasts.

“Collectively, these results indicate the importance of critical thinking and considering population subgroups when it comes to COVID-19’s psychological impacts,” said MacKillop. “Rather than uniform increases or decreases, it’s increasingly clear that subgroups will show very different patterns, including both negative and, in some cases, positive changes.”

The study, which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, was published Friday (Jun 4) in the journal, Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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