Posted on July 15, 2021 by Amanda Cerreto

This article originally appeared in UTSA Today by Ingrid Wright.

Dr. Jeffrey Howard JULY 16, 2021 — The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic brought many relevant issues to light. One question on the minds of many in the health care industry: How can psychologists and other clinicians better serve patients struggling with drug abuse issues?

Aiming to answer that question is a researcher in UTSA's College for Health, Community and Policy, which is committed to improving the health of individuals and their communities.

UTSA researcher and assistant professor of public health Jeffrey Howard , working in collaboration with researchers at Texas State University, recently published the results of a study on pandemic-related work status and its association with self-reported increases in substance use in the Journal of Workplace Behavioral Health .

"Numerous stressors are placed on workers—not only the loss of a job, but also the conditions of jobs that suddenly change."

In addition to the anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic itself, the researchers considered the added stress of abrupt changes in employment status that may have exacerbated maladaptive coping strategies—such as an increased use of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana and opioids. By zeroing in on the triggers that prompted an uptick in drug use, the team hopes to ultimately devise a roadmap that lays out healthier ways for patients to cope.

"When the pandemic started and the initial stay-at-home orders began, we suspected that there would be enormous stress placed on individuals, and that some of this would be related to changing work status," Howard said. “We wanted to get an early measure of these impacts and how they may be related to substance use.”

The research, led by Krista Howard , a psychology professor at Texas State University, used a nationwide randomized Facebook-sponsored ad campaign to recruit online participants. The campaign ran from April 14 to April 22, 2020, when the initial stay-at-home protocols were enacted. By this time in 2020, millions of people had been furloughed or laid off and filing for unemployment benefits—bumping the country's unemployment rate up to 14.7%, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The ad was targeted at random newsfeeds of 76,110 Facebook users in the U.S. aged 18 and older. Participants were asked to fill out an anonymous online study focused on psychological responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2,267 individuals who participated in the survey were asked about their current work status, demographic factors and substance use behavior.

Looking at behaviors such as number of cigarettes smoked, amount of alcohol consumed, use of marijuana and use of opioids for pain, participants were asked to state if their use of these substances had gone in one of four ways: stayed the same, increased, decreased, or was not applicable—and thus not an issue for respondents.

The study showed that individuals who became unemployed due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic accounted for the majority of those who reverted to unhealthy substance use behaviors to cope. Within this group:

  • 43% reported increased use of alcohol
  • 53% reported an increase in cigarette smoking
  • 50% reported increased use of marijuana.

In addition, individuals who were working outside the home, largely “essential” workers and those who changed to work-from-home arrangements, also reported significant increases in alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking and marijuana use. Individuals who lost their jobs reported the largest percent who increased the use of opioids (33%).

Read more about public health studies at UTSA .

“The main conclusion from this research was that during a population-level event like this, numerous stressors are placed on workers—not only the loss of a job, but also the conditions of jobs that suddenly change,” Howard said. “For example, the demand for essential workers to continue working in the public despite exposure risk, requirements for extended hours, and caring for children and elders while working at home, all represent significant stressors for different groups of workers.”

— Amanda Cerreto