Pandemic amplifies risk of future worsening mental health issues

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Long after a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination is developed and years after the coronavirus death toll is tallied, the impact on mental health will linger, continuing to inflict damage if not addressed, according to new research published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

The impact of COVID-19 on psychological symptoms and disorders, addiction, and health behavior is substantial and ongoing and will negatively impact people's mental health and put them at greater risk for chronic illness and drug addiction, the researchers said, noting those at greater risk are those that have mental health vulnerabilities or disorders. For example, those who catastrophize the pandemic amplify the actual stress impact, increasing their symptoms and creating the possibility for substance abuse, according to the study.

In the study, the researchers offer a model of how the COVID-19 stress burden may be associated with addictive problems and health behaviors, and how these may be associated with later chronic illness and psychological problems. The study presents findings linking worry and fear about the pandemic to drug use and abuse.

The researchers evaluated a group of 160 participants to find if COVID-19-related worry and fear differed between substance abstainers, pre-COVID-19 users and those who initiated drug use for the first time during the pandemic.

The results provide preliminary evidence that COVID-19-related worry and fear may be putative risk factors for substance use initiation in the face of COVID-19, and these results may provide critical clinical information for helping individuals cope with this pandemic, according to Michael Zvolensky, PhD, lead author of the study, professor of psychology at the University Houston and director of the director of the Anxiety and Health Research Laboratory/Substance Use Treatment Clinic.

"Results generally suggest the persons using substance experience the highest levels of COVID-19-related worry and fear," said Zvolensky. "Additionally, worry about COVID-19 is related to coping motives for substance use."

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