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Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect Young Women’s Substance Use? Part 1

Studies suggest young women’s substance use is catching up to men's. Tammy Chung, PhD, examined whether this was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Did substance use increase during the COVID-19 pandemic? Does increased substance use raise the risk of COVID-19 infection?

One study, recently published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, delved into young Black and White women’s substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We discussed the intent behind this research with Tammy Chung, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Population Behavioral Health at the Rutgers Institute for Health and a corresponding author of the study.

“We’re mainly interested in finding out whether young adult women’s substance use changed from before the pandemic to after the pandemic,” Chung explained. Her team was motivated to conduct this research in response to surveys suggesting substance usage was rising during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This uptick could be due to using substances to cope with pandemic-related stress, Chung said. However, other studies found rates of substance use were decreasing, potentially due to lockdown orders hindering access.

“We were thinking that these national surveys are giving you just averages of what’s happening at the time that it’s going on, and what’s happening at the individual level is really much more interesting,” Chung said. “The population level is glossing over all of these individual differences.”

Chung and her fellow investigators wanted to identify the respective subgroups with increasing and decreasing substance use, which could improve intervention strategies.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic altering substance use patterns, women’s substance use has been becoming more socially accepted. Chung added, “I don’t think that there’s been enough of an increased awareness of the associated harms of substance use for women, and that’s what’s important.”

The team pulled data from the Pittsburgh Girls Study for their analysis. The cohort included 938 young adult women, with an average age of 26 years. About half of the sample were Black and half were White.

From this longitudinal community sample, they collected reported cigarette/e-cigarette use, cannabis use, and binge drinking (≥ 4 drinks per occasion).

After identifying these subgroups, the investigators looked for characteristics like race, reported COVID-19 infection, and COVID-related life impacts (i.e., mental health decline, loss of job) that could have affected substance use.

This is part 1 of Dr. Chung’s interview. Click here for part 2, in which Chung expounds her results and discusses the correlation between substance use and COVID-19 infection.