Substance abuse, alcohol consumption rises during pandemic, state officials say

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The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increased number of individuals with substance abuse disorder to relapse, and led to a rise in alcohol consumption among adults and hindered access to school support services for students, state officials have said. 

Over the past year, overdose rates have increased 10 percent nationally. In an August 2020 survey, the Centers for Disease Control found that 13.3 percent of respondents “started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.”

While all of the 2020 data has not been released yet, state health officials said in April that preliminary data show there were at least 422 more overdose deaths in 2020 than in 2019.

“As we continue to evaluate 2020 overdose trends, we are seeing a significant uptick in fatal overdoses,” acting state Health Secretary Alison Beam said. “We know that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the challenges for people with the disease of addiction.”

In addition to increased substance abuse rates, the pandemic has led to a rise in demand for mental health services, the American Psychological Association reported.

“With increases in substance use, trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and other risk factors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, intensifying our prevention efforts to address these risk factors is absolutely critical,” Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs (DDAP) Secretary Jennifer Smith said. 

While the pandemic has forced many state agencies to reevaluate their current objectives and outreach programs to help more Pennsylvanians get support services. Alison Gantz, a spokesperson for DDAP, said that the pandemic has “reiterated the importance” of the agency’s four main goals – reducing stigma, intensifying primary prevention, strengthening the state’s treatment system and empowering sustained recovery. 

“We are more focused than ever on improving quality and access to treatment across the system to help combat the negative impacts stemming from the pandemic.” Gantz said. 

But the increase in overdose and alcohol consumption rates aren’t the only causes for concern.

The department is also worried about the barriers to accessing mental health services the COVID-19 pandemic has placed on Pennsylvania’s students who have been learning virtually or through hybridized instruction during the pandemic shutdowns.

Schools stare down teen mental health crisis as they prepare for largely virtual year

“Schools are in an ideal position to provide the relationships and services that promote equitable, trauma-informed practices that support prevention programming and universal support to address risk factors in youth,” Department of Education Mental Health/Alcohol and Other Drug Specialist Dr. Dana Milakovic said. “By focusing on prevention programming and positive learning environments, we can support youth’s mental wellness and the development of resiliency to enhance youth’s development into career-ready adults with positive coping skills and a reduction in risk-taking behaviors and substance use disorders.”

Every two years since 1989, the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD). has conducted the Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), to gather data, assess student risk factors and inform community leaders of the findings.

DDAP, in turn, uses the data collected to learn about student behaviors, attitude and knowledge of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and violence. 

In 2019, the state polled more than 294,000 students across 413 public school districts in the commonwealth. The next survey is scheduled to be conducted this fall. 

“We are interested to see how the pandemic has impacted youth substance use, including whether the increase in alcohol use among adults will be mirrored among youth. With reported increases in the need for mental health services, we anticipate that we may see continued increases in the number of youth reporting depressive symptoms and reports of suicide ideation/attempts,” Gantz told the Capital-Star, noting that the outcome of the survey will inform the department’s programming and outreach efforts moving forward. 

Speaking about DDAP’s future efforts to prevent substance abuse disorder, Smith said in a statement, “Prevention is our first line of defense in assuring our children grow up to live healthy, productive lives.”

Cassie Miller
A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.