October 13, 2020

The lasting impact of COVID-19

Young woman alone on escalators with PPE mask

As we slowly head towards the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in Australia, we deserve to feel pride in making it through this year!

But, it’s also timely to remember that, for many Australians, the challenges remain. From increased debt, an uncertain job market and unpredictable economy – plus for some, the grief of losing a loved one.

Looking after ourselves and our loved ones is just as important now as it was in the midst of the pandemic. 

Our collective mental health has suffered

The impact on the mental health of Australians, and the potential problems associated with using alcohol and other drugs as a coping mechanism, have been a concern since the start of the pandemic.

Back in April 2020, the ADF published an Insight about how mass trauma affects alcohol use and how existing pre-pandemic stressors could get worse, including:

  • personal finances
  • health issues
  • the health of those close to you
  • the economy
  • and the political climate.1
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, these concerns have played out.

Beyond Blue and Lifeline both recorded an increase in demand for their support services.

Beyond Blue saw a 30% increase in calls from the start of the restrictions,2 and Lifeline reported 3326 calls on a single day in September - their highest number of calls on record.3

In Victoria, emergency department presentations for assault in the home were higher in May 2020 compared to May 2019.4

In New South Wales, domestic violence services reported increases to the case loads of almost half of their workers, and 51% of those workers reported an increase in the involvement of alcohol in family violence situations.5

Alcohol and drug consumption patterns have been affected

A wide range of organisations from the Australian National University to the Australian Bureau of Statistics looked at alcohol consumption changes during COVID-19, and the Commonwealth Bank also released its consumer card spending data around alcohol.

Taken together, these sources paint a picture of what’s been happening in Australia.

However, the picture may be more complex than it seems –it is also important to consider the following:

  • In self-reported surveys, people may tend to under-estimate how much alcohol they consume.6
  • Retailers such as Coles and Woolworths have reported a shift away from premium alcohol products towards cheaper, bulk options. For some consumers this may mean spending the same amount of money to purchase a higher volume of less expensive alcohol.7
  • The Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) notes that people may be more likely to be spending on credit or debit cards than using cash this year, so this could be affecting the card spending data when compared to previous years. Also, while people may be buying more, they’re not necessarily drinking more.8

According to the CBA, their card holders have increased the amount spent on alcohol compared to last year.8 Although spending at venues took a nosedive during restrictions this was offset by spending on take-away alcohol from places like bottle shops.8

For example, in the week ending September 11 2020 compared to 2019, CBA card holders spent 22% more on alcohol.9 This was driven by a 42% increase in alcohol goods (e.g. from bottle shops) despite the 9% decrease in spending on alcohol services (e.g. pubs and bars).9

Although the numbers have been different – ranging from a 20% increase in alcohol consumption (ANU) to a 14% increase (ABS) - we’ve consistently seen people reporting one of three behaviours.8

Some people have drunk less alcohol, some people have drunk more alcohol, and some people have drunk the same amount (which includes non-drinkers).

Changes in drug use patterns also appear to have occurred.

A study of people who use drugs in Australia indicated that participants were less likely to have used cocaine and MDMA and were more likely to have used cannabis and alcohol, during the restrictions.10

Why people’s behaviour has changed

A survey conducted on behalf of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) found that, of those who had increased their alcohol consumption during COVID-19 lockdowns, common reasons included:11

  • to relieve stress and anxiety
  • boredom
  • more free time
  • fewer daily responsibilities.

While some of these drivers will naturally evaporate with the end of restrictions, stress and anxiety are likely to continue.

For many of us, the aftermath will still be a struggle – especially financially – and concerns are now shifting towards the lasting impact of COVID-19 and how we’re going to support the people who need help.

First and foremost, we need to remember that everyone has been doing the best they can.

While it’s great news that some people have drunk less during the restrictions, our concern is for those who have been drinking more – and may not want to carry that forward as a habit.

As we shift away from restrictions and head into summer, it’s the perfect time to re-examine our habits and seize the opportunity to make some healthier changes.

Even people who haven’t been drinking more recently can still boost their health by cutting back.

Learn more at Break the Habit.

Tips for heading into summer

Everyone may find their tolerance to alcohol or other drugs is affected by how much they have, or haven’t, been using recently.

When someone is using alcohol or other drugs regularly, their tolerance may gradually increase, so they need to use more to get the same effect.

Tolerance may also decrease when not using alcohol or other drugs, so people should be cautious if they start again. It's safest to start off slowly and see how you feel.

Tips for people who use alcohol:

  • never drink on an empty stomach
  • alternate drinks with a non-alcoholic beverage
  • set the number of drinks you’ll have, and count them to help you stick to it
  • never drive or swim after drinking alcohol.

Tips for people who use other drugs:

  • start with a small amount and see how you feel
  • tell someone what you’ve taken in case you need support
  • avoid mixing drugs, including alcohol
  • stay hydrated
  • don’t hesitate to call 000 in an emergency.
  1. Australian Psychological Society. Stress & wellbeing: how Australians are coping with life. 2015 [cited 2020 April 4].
  2. Beyond Blue. Beyond Blue welcomes funding for new COVID-19 support service. 2020.
  3. Lifeline.In lead up to World Suicide Prevention Day and RUOK? Day, Australians reach out to Lifeline, Australia's largest suicide prevention service, in record numbers. 2020.
  4. Monash University Accident Research Centre. Injuries during the COVID-19 pandemic. 2020.
  5. Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Women's Safety NSW. Family violence and alcohol during COVID-19. 2020.
  6. Stockwell T, Donath S, Cooper‐Stanbury M, Chikritzhs T, Catalano P, Mateo C. Under‐reporting of alcohol consumption in household surveys: a comparison of quantity–frequency, graduated–frequency and recent recall. Addiction. 2004;99(8):1024-33.
  7. Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. Alcohol use and harm during COVID-19. 2020.
  8. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Alcohol, tobacco & other drugs in Australia. 2020.
  9. Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Commbank weekly card spending data broadly steady. 2020.
  10. National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. ADAPT study results: wave 1 (29 April - 15 June 2020). 2020.
  11. Kantar Public. Creature campaign evaluation: wave 1 report. Alcohol and Drug Foundation; 2020.

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