Every week of lockdown makes binge drinking more likely

Being stuck at home due to the coronavirus pandemic can affect our mental health and behavior in more ways than we imagine. As many around the world can attest, it can even make us more likely to drink more alcohol. A new study has just confirmed that idea.

Image credit: Flickr / Diann Bayes

In response to the outbreak, local and state governments across the US mandated temporary shelter-in-place and business shutdown policies as an attempt to control and reduce the spread of the virus. As a result, many experienced a sudden loss of salary, unemployment, and physical isolation — all of which can take a serious toll on our minds.

As of late June, 40% of US adults reported struggling with mental health problems, including substance use, previous studies have shown. However, limited research has evaluated the impact of specific COVID-19-related stressors on alcohol consumption, and specifically, binge drinking.

Binge drinking is a common but preventable alcohol use behavior defined as having 5+ drinks for men or 4+ drinks for women, in a span of only two hours. It’s a practice commonly associated with increased stress levels and has been shown to be detrimental to mental health. Researchers from the University of Texas surveyed nearly 2,000 people over 18 years old across the US, to analyze the interplay between the binge drinking and the lockdown.

They collected data on sociodemographics, alcohol consumption, and COVID-19-related stressors using a web-based, self-report survey. Then, they used a multivariable logistic and multinomial regression model to establish the link between alcohol consumption and pandemic’s stressors.

The findings showed that 34% of the sample reported binge drinking during the pandemic. More binge drinkers increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic (60%) than non-binge drinkers (28%). For every week spent at home during the pandemic, there were 1.21 greater odds of binge drinking.

Binge drinkers had, on average, four drinks per occasion, compared to just two drinks for the non-binge drinkers. Those surveyed who drank at harmful levels during the pandemic would consume seven drinks maximum on one occasion, compared to a maximum of two per session during the pandemic for those who did not.

Underlying mental problems also seemed to play a role in people’s behavior. People with a previous diagnosis of depression and current depression symptoms had greater odds of increased alcohol consumption compared to those reporting no depression. Meanwhile, living with children was associated with lower odds of binge drinking during the pandemic, according to the study.

While the findings are significant, the researchers note a few limitations of their study. Over 70% of respondents reported an annual income of greater than $80,000, which potentially indicates more disposable income. This relatively high income could skew the data, though it’s not entirely clear which way.

At the same time, the findings may also differ as time progressed. For example, individuals may have adapted to the “new normal” and maintained pre-pandemic alcohol consumption behaviors. On the other hand, others may feel more strained due to the length of the lockdown and increase their dependence on alcohol.

At any rate, the study goes to show that the ramifications of both the pandemic and the lockdown orders can have on our mental state. Further studies are needed on strategies to prevent and intervene in binge drinking behaviors while people are in isolation, especially considering the potential of a longer lockdown as the pandemic continues, the researchers argued. That’s currently the case in many parts of the world, with cases on the rise amid a massive second wave.

The study was published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

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