In the spring of 2020, COVID-19-related social distancing and shelter-in-place orders across the U.S. and internationally shifted the nature of social, work, and educational life. A concern to many is the degree to which loneliness and social isolation could have harmful and lingering effects. Evidence suggests that young adults may be particularly vulnerable to loneliness, in part because of transitions they face (e.g., moving away from home/family, making decisions about career and relationships). Reports of widespread loneliness on university campuses across the U.S. and in the U.K. abound. Published evidence examining the health effects of previous catastrophic events suggests that stressors associated with such events (both natural and manmade) can lead to increased alcohol consumption. The question for my research team was: how are students coping with this loneliness and pandemic-related stress?

Our U.S. College Student Survey

To answer this question, we administered an online survey to 215 college students (68% women) in Portland, Oregon during shelter-in-place orders in Oregon over a five-week period in April and May of 2020. During these early months of the pandemic, there was relatively limited virus exposure in Oregon (e.g., 1.3 cases per 100,000 in Oregon compared to 8.7 cases per 100,000 across the U.S). However, protective protocols, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and restricted in-person activity (e.g., in schools, businesses, shopping, leisure), were comparatively high in Oregon during this time. Not surprisingly, our students reported relatively high levels of loneliness, with 53% experiencing loneliness “sometimes” or “always.”

Most survey respondents (76%) consumed alcohol at least occasionally, on average drinking between 2 and 4 times per month. The typical quantity of consumption was 1 or 2 drinks per occasion, though 12% of men and 17% of women reported drinking 6 or more drinks on occasion at least monthly. Among drinkers, 29% reported that they had increased the quantity of their consumption since sheltering-in-place had begun in mid-March 2020.

Of concern, students with higher levels of loneliness were more motivated to drink to cope and consequently drank more frequently. We also found a similar pattern of more frequent drinking due to coping motivations among students who consumed more COVID-19-related news. However, these students did not necessarily increase the amount of alcohol they drank when they consumed.

Implications

As we described in our recent Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs paper, there are multiple take-aways about university student mental health and alcohol consumption. Although it might seem that simply socializing with other people would relieve loneliness, our analysis indicates that it is the subjective feelings of loneliness, and not social isolation or being alone, that predicts drinking. Given that lonelier individuals tend to expect negative interactions with others and dwell on negative social information or events, reframing or challenging such negative thinking can serve as a powerful strategy and has been shown to reduce loneliness and associated consequences. Students may want to reassess how they engage in social media and news consumption, since increased COVID-related news consumption was predictive of coping-related drinking in our study, and other research has linked excess social media use with loneliness. For example, limiting time spent on these activities and focusing on making positive social connections are both recognized healthy strategies.

Drinking to cope with negative experiences such as stress and loneliness is linked to the development of alcohol problems. However, coping-related drinking motives do not necessarily predict heavy drinking. Thus, effective screening for alcohol-related problems should include assessment of drinking-to-cope motivations (e.g., How often did you drink to forget about your problems?). Encouraging healthy, adaptive coping strategies – such as mindfulness-based practice, increasing physical activity, or spending time in nature – as a preventive strategy or for those individuals who are indicating drinking-to-cope motivations, can help alleviate reliance on alcohol when under stress.

The Post-pandemic Challenge Ahead

As on-campus activity resumes, it is easy to believe things will go back to “normal” relatively quickly. However, there is evidence to suggest that the lingering effects of the pandemic and associated shut-down will remain, including heightened depression and anxiety, loneliness, and stress. There may well be additional stress and anxiety associated with transitioning back to in-person activities. Additionally, many people have experienced losses in various forms, whether it be loved ones who have died, separation from friends and family, or security and access to basic needs. Further, health effects may be compounded by the already-overextended or inadequate university mental health services. Universities can play a critical role in mitigating these longer-term indirect effects of COVID, and need resources to bolster the support they are providing to meet the demands of this extraordinary time.

Written by Professor Cynthia Mohr, Department of Psychology, Portland State University and Associate Editor of Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.