Study finds adults with children under 18 at home report using alcohol to cope with stress of COVID-19

York University psychology researchers surveyed Canadians early in the pandemic and found that those who had at least one child under the age of 18 at home, or who experienced greater depression or a lack of social connectedness, were more likely to report using alcohol to cope with distress during COVID-19. The results are published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Jeffrey Wardell

Jeffrey Wardell

Assistant Professors Jeffrey Wardell and Matthew Keough in the Faculty of Health’s Department of Psychology co-led a survey of 320 Canadians who drink alcohol, using an online crowd-sourcing platform. The survey assessed work- and home-related factors, psychological factors, and alcohol-related outcomes over a 30-day period beginning within one month of the initiation of the COVID-19 emergency response. The average age of respondents was 32 years old. The goal of the study was to determine whether people were using alcohol as a coping strategy during the pandemic and, if so, to understand who was more likely to report this behaviour.

Participants in the study reported moderate drinking on average during the early stages of the pandemic, consuming between two and four drinks once or twice a week, which was similar to their alcohol consumption prior to the pandemic. However, some participants reported increased alcohol consumption during the pandemic, and the researchers aimed to understand risk factors associated with increased alcohol use.

Matthew Keough

Matthew Keough

The survey results showed the use of alcohol as a coping strategy was highest among parents who had children below the age of 18 at home (compared to those who did not), individuals experiencing greater depression, and individuals reporting more social disconnection. Drinking to cope, in turn, was related to increased alcohol use following the onset of the pandemic, as well as alcohol-related problems.

The researchers believe the finding that parents were more likely to report using alcohol to cope is particularly noteworthy.

“While the pandemic has been challenging for everyone, our data suggest that parents’ well-being was especially impacted,” says Keough. “Parents have been coping with many stressors and responsibilities during COVID-19, which potentially include working from home, homeschooling young children, and managing their own negative emotions. Our data suggests that drinking alcohol may have been a main coping strategy among stressed out parents.”

The study also found that income loss was associated with increased alcohol consumption early in the pandemic, whereas living alone was associated with increased solitary drinking behaviour, but these associations were not explained by the use of alcohol as a coping strategy.

Researchers say the study points to the importance of addressing coping-related alcohol use during the pandemic.

“Using alcohol to cope with distress is a clearly established risk factor for alcohol use disorder,” says Wardell. “This is concerning because these alcohol problems could worsen over time, suggesting it may be important to help these individuals find more positive coping strategies rather than using alcohol to cope.”

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