The results of a new study from the Australian National University (ANU) show more people have decreased their alcohol intake during the coronavirus crisis than increased. However, the study highlights one particular group that’s of concern: people who have increased their drinking from an “already high base”.
“The increase in the frequency of alcohol consumption was much higher among those males and females who when asked prior to the spread of COVID-19 said that they drunk relatively frequently,” said the study’s co-author Nicholas Biddle.
While almost half (45.8%) of those who reported an increase in drinking said it was by just one or two standard drinks a week, and more than a quarter reported an increase of three to four, Professor Biddle said the group of frequent drinkers is “troubling”.
“Those who have had an increase in alcohol consumption alongside a worsening in mental health outcomes, are likely to be of the greatest concern for public policy,” he said.
Professor Biddle acknowledged that people are generally more likely to under-report in these kinds of surveys, and Bronwyn Hendry, CEO of ACT drug and alcohol support service Directions Health, said this, along with the study’s small sample size means interpreting the findings in a local context should be treated with caution. She did however confirm a small increase in demand for Directions’ services in June, after an “average” May and a dip in April.
“It’s a bit hard to tell whether there’s any patterns that will be established,” she said. “It’s a bit early to tell whether that will be sustained.”
The study pointed to job losses, reduced work and boredom as the biggest predictors of increased drinking, with child-caring roles also a factor for women, but Ms Hendry said the use of alcohol can be “pretty complicated”.
“There are a variety of reasons why people drink.
“Other factors can include social norms and patterns with friends and family for example,” she said. “That’s less likely to be a problem with COVID-19 because people aren’t socialising to the same extent.”
The study points to 27% of respondents who said they had decreased their alcohol intake during the pandemic, and Commonwealth Bank data suggests an overall decrease in alcohol spending after a rise in late March.
More services needed to meet post-COVID-19 demand
Ms Hendry said while there is general recognition that mental health problems associated with COVID-19 will need to be addressed, the same can’t be said for drug and alcohol problems.
“We’re pretty stretched as a sector already so an increase in demand will probably be difficult to manage, really.”
The study identified psychological distress as a key driver for an increase alcohol intake for both men and women, but particularly for men.
“I think they are all risk factors for people drinking more than they might or misusing alcohol to the extent that it’s causing them problems,” Ms Hendry said.
She said psychological distress brought on by impacts of the virus such as job loss or the need to stay home in a difficult environment can lead to drug or alcohol misuse.
“There’s a very high likelihood that those difficulties will include increased drug and alcohol use for those people who either have an underlying condition and high levels of psychological distress,” she said.
“We do really need to be able to educate to people that if they are experiencing difficulties to reach out for help. We need to be able to respond to those people in a timely way through increased capacity in the sector.”