Has Substance Use Increased During the Pandemic?

By Siobhán Mitchell

Last semester brought new challenges and new possibilities to student life, opening up a conversation about public health on Denison’s campus. Although the pandemic took center stage, other aspects of our campus health still hold prevalence in how we live and learn on the Hill. Looking back at 127 data from years past, we can reflect on the issues that challenged our health before, how we are managing them now, and if we can improve them in the future.

A widespread challenge to the pandemic which remains largely unacknowledged (or at least in a serious context – jokes run rampant) has been the increased use of substances as a consequence to Covid-19 stress and cabin fever. For those already coping with substance use disorders, the pandemic has created an unanticipated challenge to sobriety. For those with previously healthy relationships with alcohol and other substances, the stress of being cooped up can alter use. Jada Pinkett-Smith’s show Red Table Talk opened the conversation on substance use during the pandemic when she sat down for a conversation with her daughter and mother in early April. The conversation, which has been viewed by 84.9 million people, dove into the struggles of substance use across generational boundaries.

Although Denison’s student body is less diverse in age than those at the Red Table, it is the group most likely to turn to substances for Covid-19 stress relief. In a CDC survey reporting the effects of the pandemic on the lives of Americans, respondents ages 18-24 were the most common age group to report the initiation or increase of substance use to cope with Covid-19 associated stress. In pre-pandemic times (2018), over a third of young adults were considered current binge drinkers, and were the most likely group to binge drink. Additionally, college students reported higher rates of marijuana vaping, nicotine vaping, adderall misuse, and binge drinking than non-college peers. In a group already associated with alcohol abuse and substance misuse, the pandemic could just be making it worse.

127 asked students about the drinking habits of their closest friend for the fall 2019, spring 2020, and fall 2020 semesters (“In the average week, how many days of the week did your closest friend consume 4 or more drinks in 2 hours or less?”). Since Denison party culture differs between fall and spring, semesters were not expected to be identical but rather provide insight to general trends in student drinking habits.

Although data did not show an increase in binge drinking corresponding to the timeline of the pandemic, there is an undeniable persistence of binge drinking behaviors on campus throughout all three semesters. Respondents indicated the number of nights a week their closest friend engaged in binge drinking behaviors. The individual frequency of binge drinking falls slightly across semesters with 23% of students reporting their closest friend binged 3+ nights per week in fall 2019, 22% in spring 2020, and 18% in fall 2020. Needless to say, binge drinking is still very common on campus, but we don’t see the same increasing trend during the pandemic that the CDC reports.

In pre-pandemic times, Maggie Miller leaned into the assumption that Denisonians drink where they were most comfortable, which was supported by data that indicated students drank on the quad corresponding to their grade level. Although the spring 2019 survey didn’t explicitly outline drinking in a dorm/apartment as an answer, students tended to favor the quads where they (or most of their grade) lived. Predictably, the pandemic ate into common drinking spaces, showing dramatic decreases in drinking in the Sunnies, Moonies, and East Quad.

Tragically, we can’t compare the high proportion choosing their dorm/apartment as a drinking venue. Granted, the pandemic and frigid temperatures could be driving this trend as students don’t have many other options given the restrictions placed on frat and social venues. In the warmer months when the survey was administered, the IMs held significant appeal but not as much when they’re covered in snow.

In gaging if any of this information is an accurate portrayal of campus drinking habits, less than 10% of students are not confident about their closest friends’ drinking habits; two-thirds are very or extremely confident. This held true across the spring and fall surveys, so the pandemic does not appear to have put distance between close friends.

In a time of uncertainty, it can be easy to neglect our health in other ways, including mental health, sleep, and responsible substance use. Covid-19 is the most prominent health issue on everyone’s mind, making it easy to forget about everything else that holds ourselves and the campus together. The work hard, play hard, no sleep attitude on campus doesn’t help the cause, but we can take action to counter the negative effects of lockdown.

Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major, on the premedical track, yet taking a political science independent study. By those standards, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she can’t decide what to eat for dinner.

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