Alcohol Intake Rising among US Adults with Anxiety, Depression during COVID-19

January 20, 2021
Sydney Jennings

Associate Editor of Patient Care Online

Adults with anxiety and depression are more likely to report an increase in drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic vs those without mental health issues, a new study found.

Adults with anxiety and depression are more likely to report an increase in drinking during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic vs those without mental health issues, according to a new study published online January 7, 2021 in the journal Preventive Medicine.

“This increase in drinking, particularly among people with anxiety and depression, is consistent with concerns that the pandemic may be triggering an epidemic of problematic alcohol use,” said lead author Ariadna Capasso, doctoral student, NYU School of Global Public Health, in a press release.

COVID-19 has created numerous stressors including isolation, disruption of routines, illness, economic hardship, and fear of contagion, and research suggests that people are drinking more to cope.

For example, a recent survey found that harmful drinking among US adults increased the longer they were in lockdown, and binge drinkers with a previous diagnosis of depression and current depression symptoms had greater odds of increased alcohol intake vs those who did not.

To further understand COVID-19’s impact on US adults, Capasso and fellow NYU colleagues created and administered an online survey in March and April 2020, using Facebook to recruit adults from all 50 states.

Researchers asked participants about their alcohol use during the pandemic, gathered demographic information, and measured symptoms of depression and anxiety based on self-report.

Of the 5850 respondents who said they consumed alcohol, 29% reported drinking more during the pandemic, 19.8% reported drinking less, and 51.2% reported no change in drinking behavior.

Respondents with COVID-19-related depressive symptoms (n=1633) were 64% more likely to increase their alcohol consumption and those with COVID-19-related anxiety symptoms (n=2607) were 41% more likely to do so.

Drinking behaviors varied by age

Respondents aged 18-39 years were the most likely to report increased alcohol consumption (40%) during the pandemic, compared to those aged 40-59 years (30%) and those aged ≥60 years (20%). Participants aged >40 years, however, who experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression were approximately twice as likely to report increased drinking during the pandemic vs those without symptoms.

“We expected that younger people and those with mental health issues would report drinking as a coping mechanism, but this is the first time we’re learning that mental health is associated with differences in alcohol use by age,” said study co-author Yesim Tozan, MS, MA, PhD, assistant professor of global health, NYU School of Global Public Health, in the same press release.

To combat the rise in alcohol use, the researchers recommended increased mental health and substance use services during COVID-19 and actively reaching out to people with existing mental health issues who may engage in unhealthy drinking behaviors in response.

“The observed age effect in our study suggests a need for tailoring public health messaging on substance use by age groups; and intensifying substance use prevention and treatment efforts for those who are more likely to engage in problem alcohol use in response to stress,” concluded authors.