An Epidemic Within a Pandemic, COVID-19, and Substance Abuse in Canada

Young woman on the street

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Canadian population — the vulnerable have been made more vulnerable. Anyone struggling with addiction has found it difficult to access the treatment services they needed because of the pandemic. Also, due to self-isolation, government-mandated lockdowns, social distancing, job loss, and the threat of a virus, it became the perfect storm for new addiction problems in the country. It is difficult to know the long-term damage, but the indicators and data are there.

For example, between March and April of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Canada lost approximately three million jobs. However, in July, unemployment rose by more than 418,000 jobs, the country has recuperated around 50% of the lost jobs. Yet much of the damage has been done, and job loss along with financial stress and worry are common reasons why someone would choose to abuse drugs or alcohol.

The Impact of COVID-19 and Increased Substance Use

According to the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction, people who use substances reported a loss of social connection and support and increased isolation. Respondents also reported a higher level of concern with the drug supply because of border closures resulting in more overdose deaths from using tainted drugs. The physical distancing and self-isolation created more addicts, devastated those addicted to drugs, and made many recovering addicts’ relapse.

COVID-19 led to a reduction and even a loss of some treatment services for people who use substances. Treatment and service providers have had to adapt — many had to reduce services and even shut down temporarily to ensure safety protocols were put in place. Some providers have transitioned from in-person meetings to online meetings, which is insufficient to serve the number of people who need help. The lack of proper support certainly forced more people to resort to drug and alcohol use as a means of coping with the added stress.

Man on the phone in his living room with a glass in his hand
Man on the phone in his living room with a glass in his hand

Additionally, per the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction, boredom and stress drove increased alcohol consumption during the height of the pandemic. Per the NANOS Poll cited in the report, nearly nine in ten Canadians reported staying at home more due to COVID-19. Across the country, there were drastic changes in alcohol consumption. Approximately one in five Canadians staying at home more report that their alcohol consumption has increased. Most frequently, Canadians who are staying at home since the pandemic said they had consumed alcohol two to three times a week since the beginning of May.

There are many reasons why someone misuses alcohol or drugs, and the pandemic created the perfect circumstance. Canadians cited a lack of regular schedule and boredom as the most common reason to consume more drugs and alcohol. However, some Canadians reported the lack of social gatherings as a reason for drinking less alcohol. The pandemic created significant problems for millions of Canadians, resulting in excessive government overreach, destroying the Canadian economy, and forcing millions of Canadians out of work.

The Mental Health Implications Within the Pandemic

Substance abuse creates problems with anxiety and depression and does little in helping to cope. Someone who is already struggling with psychological issues may turn to drugs or alcohol as a means of relief from the problems they are facing in life. During a COVID-19 National Survey done by the Canadian Association of Mental Health, approximately 27% of Canadians engaged in binge drinking, 23% felt lonely, 18% felt depressed, and 19% felt anxious. All too often, drugs and alcohol become a way of coping with these emotions. Canadians who experienced the most anxiety during the pandemic were between 18 and 39, followed by those aged 40 to 59. Most Canadians were worried about their finances. Financial stress and worry are a common reason for substance abuse.

Woman looking worried
Woman looking worried

Overall, the pandemic has had a significant negative impact on the lives of Canadians. Many Canadians have seen their stress levels double since the onset of the pandemic. People are struggling with fear and uncertainty about their health and the health of their loved ones. Also, there are continuing concerns about employment and finances, especially as news media and politicians talk about more lockdowns. According to CAMH, approximately 50% of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began.

Moreover, 81% of Canadians reported that the pandemic is negatively impacting their mental health. As a result, substance use is on the rise in Canada during COVID-19. For example, approximately 25% of Canadians aged 35 to 54 and 21% aged 18 to 34 increased their alcohol consumption. Unfortunately, some Canadians are more vulnerable than others, which includes those struggling with addiction.

Opioid Overdose Increased Amid COVID-19

Drug exchange, a brown bag exchanged for money.
Drug exchange, a brown bag exchanged for money.

Addicts and substance abuse treatment providers say several factors have contributed to a surge in overdoses during the pandemic. When the federal government introduced the emergency benefit fund, many people used that money for drugs. Coroners' offices across the country have seen spikes in overdose deaths. The Ontario coroner, for example, reported overdose deaths rose 25% in the last three months. The number of deaths in British Columbia increased by 40% during that same time.

According to the CBC, the number of people who died of opioid overdoses in Alberta surged during the pandemic. Between April and June of 2020, a total of 301 people died in Alberta because of opioids. A similar surge was observed in other provinces, like British Columbia, where there have been more than 170 overdose deaths per month since May of 2020.

COVID-19 Created More Substance Abuse Issues

Everything associated with the pandemic has created an increase in substance abuse issues seen across the country. Whether due to excessive government intervention, job loss, financial stress, self-isolation, fear, mental health, or existing problems with addiction — substance abuse problems became amplified at the height of the pandemic. The worst is the increase in fatal drug overdoses, and provinces like British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have seen significant increases.

There are emotional, physical, and psychological reasons why someone abuses drugs or alcohol. Substance abuse is a devastating problem to deal with, and every year it destroys lives and rips families apart. Throughout 2020, it has been an epidemic within a pandemic, and when the dust settles, more people could be struggling with addiction. Overall, there has been an increased need for treatment, and treatment providers across the country are already struggling to meet the demand. However, substance abuse treatment is the only option for anyone who wants to become drug and alcohol-free.

Sources Used and Cited

Susan is a Drug & Alcohol Treatment Specialist and does On-Line Counseling. She also works as a Drug & Alcohol Addiction Consultant helping families find help.