The highs & lows of substance use during COVID-19

The pandemic has influenced major change in the way some students use substances at Queen’s

Two Queen’s students and a recent alum speak to The Journal about substance use and abuse.
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This story discusses substance abuse. It may be triggering for some readers.

Kelly King has never been a staple drinker. But since the onset of the pandemic, she has experienced a drastic change in her substance use.

“I don’t have particular habits. I go through periods and phases and most often than not, there’s no pattern to how I drink,” King, ArtSci ’21, said.

Prior to the pandemic, King had a routine of attending classes and running errands. Since being restricted to largely spending time at home, her alcohol consumption has increased.

Increased substance use to cope with the pandemic has not been uncommon throughout COVID-19, according to Aaron Bailey, an MSc student at Queen’s studying Health Promotion. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions in students’ social networks, daily routines, relationships, academic plans, and financial uncertainty,” Bailey said.

“Stress, anxiety, depression, anger, despair, hopelessness, fear, and loss have taken a significant toll on students’ mental health over the course of the past year, and substance use is a common means of coping with that.”

The Journal spoke with two Queen’s students and one recent alum who have experienced significant changes in their substance habits, each citing a range of factors contributing to changes in their substance use.

Shifting substance at the outset of the pandemic

All three students said their substance habits changed quickly when the first lockdown began in March 2020.

Victoria Cooke, ArtSci ’21, who would often drink socially on weekends and smoke marijuana socially once a week pre-pandemic, said the changes in her social life and living with her mother have reduced her substance use.

“The big difference for me is in not seeing my friends since COVID-19 started,” she said.

Cooke noted the shift in habits was immediate and that she has consumed alcohol sparingly throughout the last year.

“I haven’t had anyone to drink with. No one that I’m friends with has made me feel like we need to drink when we hang out over FaceTime.”

King, meanwhile, has moved through three different social circles since the onset of the pandemic, which she partially attributed as a cause to her increased use.

“When I made a shift [in my social circles], this shift would affect my drinking because I was around new people and learning their drinking habits,” she said. “When you get to know new people, a very common thing we do is drink together.”

As Ontario entered lockdown back in March, King cited experiencing a “huge change” in her substance use habits.

“I was at home more often than not and more than I had ever been before,” she said. “I was isolating with two other people and we decided that we didn’t know what was going to happen, so we just tried to enjoy every day, and often that involved having alcohol.”

King said having a less structured routine allowed her to carry her substance habits through the pandemic after adapting to the initial shock of COVID-19 and going into isolation.

“If I had an evening class I could have a glass of wine at home while I was in class, so I definitely started drinking more,” she said.

Like Cooke and King, Jacob Dey, ArtSci ’20, said reduced social pressures impacted his substance use.

While Dey had a “firmly regimented” schedule prior to the pandemic’s spread that consisted of social drinking at parties on weekends, smoking marijuana when it was offered to him, and using psychedelic drugs on a bi-monthly basis, his preferred substances shifted when the first Ontario lockdown began.

“I cut down on drinking because there weren’t any big social settings for me to drink with people,” he said. “My housemate and I got into a habit of getting high every night and playing video games every night and watching movies to make the time pass faster.”

Dey noted the explicit intent he made with his housemate to use marijuana on a daily basis during the beginning of quarantine.

“Both of us had a shitty relationship with marijuana in the sense that smoking marijuana rarely made us happy and we felt like, in a weird way, it would be of some utility to be able to handle our weed, so we made a deliberate pact to smoke more weed.”

After graduating from Queen’s in June, Dey continued his marijuana use while discontinuing alcohol consumption altogether. While he was no longer socially motivated to use either substance, Dey continued smoking alone because he enjoyed it.

“[Smoking] did eventually grow on me; I came to enjoy smoking weed and getting high alone to watch movies and play video games. I stopped experimenting and just picked up the habit of smoking solo,” he said.

“My drinking habits have disappeared completely, which I think is a symptom of me graduating and no longer having a group of kids my age who want to be drunk and rowdy around. I have no want to get drunk with my mom.”

Dealing with varied substance use

Dey and King agreed their relationships with particular substances have evolved throughout the pandemic.

“[My marijuana use] has gotten a bit less experimental and exciting,” Dey said. “The original idea of me massively increasing my weed usage was to build a good relationship with and explore it. I pretty much conquered and solved weed and I’m not learning about it anymore.”

“That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy it, I’m just no longer learning new things about weed or myself whenever I smoke it”

King said her consumption habits have the tendency to be higher during greater periods of stress. After noticing this increase in her drinking habits, she began setting goals for herself.

“It’s been like a wave. Immediately the pandemic hit and my drinking went up, and then I was like, ‘I need to slow this down.’ I was drinking a lot and I wasn’t sure how I would cut down. There were no forces around me to help me.”

King told The Journal that she started keeping track of her sober days and drinking days by marking them off in her calendar.

“I gave myself a rule where I was only allowed to drink on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When I started to keep track I was able to visualize my patterns in relation to drinking and I felt more motivated to challenge myself to have more sober days than drinking days, and I started bringing [my drinking days] down more and more until it got to the point where I had a full sober week.”

She saw further fluctuations in her substance use from the summer into the new school year. While the summer allowed her to be outside and more freedom than was otherwise offered when being confined to one space back at the beginning of the pandemic, the new school year has caused her to once again increase her substance use.

“Recently my drinking has been up again,” she said. “There has been more stress.”

Figuring out your ideal level of substance use

When asked whether she’s concerned about her increased substance use over the past year, King said she has always been confused by how she uses alcohol.

King has noticed advertising for wellness services available at Queen’s through her email and over social media, but has brushed over these advertisements. Alternatively, King is in contact with Student Wellness Services (SWS) for general wellness support and is able to access the resources she needs there.

“I haven’t approached them with any concerns regarding substance use, but I would say that SWS have always been fantastic.”

Dey said he’s not aware of any resources available on campus for students who are navigating increased substance use and doesn’t recall any notable resources that stuck out to him during his time on campus.

Bailey noted it’s “imperative” for universities to adopt and implement harm reductionist policies to respond to higher risk substance use for students who may be experiencing increased use during the pandemic.

“Institutions ought to be open to supporting a wide range of interventions that are able to ‘meet people where they’re at’ regardless of what their substance of choice is and where they fall along the continuum of use,” he said.

“That’s especially difficult to do right now given the amount of adaptation that student-oriented harm reduction services have had to undertake in order to continue to operate, but there are still several things that universities can be doing right now.”

Bailey noted that the chronic shortage in mental health resources available to students attending Ontario universities is also a critical factor in fostering an environment for increased substance use.

He maintained that universities need to make a tangible financial commitment to hiring more mental health professionals to better support students who are struggling with increased consumption habits.

READ MORE: University launches eight-week program to support students managing substance use & addiction

“In my view, such a commitment would be harm reduction at work,” he said. “This is a critical window to provide students with resources to mitigate harm reduction and promote general thriving.”

“If we allow substance-related harm to continue to persist now and don’t provide students with mental health and harm reductions supports now, then this could lead to more chronic problems down the road.”

Bailey noted that students coping with substance abuse can currently access resources through SWS. He also pointed to the Campus Observation Room’s COR-Ed Initiative, which aims to provide information and resources to students about alcohol harm reduction.

Students who are in Kingston may access consumption and treatment services at StreetHealth Kingston or Resolve Counselling for accessible psychotherapy for individuals who may be experiencing financial barriers to accessing services. 

For King, in navigating substance use, awareness of one’s habits and goals is key to finding a healthy balance.

“It’s hard because we are all in a different positionality; different backgrounds, different challenges and different economic statuses. We’re all in different situations so it’s really hard to give any advice that would be specific or helpful,” she said.

“If I was speaking to one person who was really concerned that their drinking was out of hand, I would hope that they could channel that concern into some kind of awareness and care for themselves.”

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