The drugs don’t work: Substance misuse during the pandemic

Smoking in solitude. Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Substance misuse has been at the forefront of the social issues in Ireland for decades and it is a problem that seems to continue to grow due to the widespread availability of both cheap alcohol and illicit drugs.

Now, as we face the Covid-19 pandemic, people find themselves isolated at home with their own thoughts – a breeding ground for anxiety that can make it difficult to cope with drug and alcohol addiction. With counselling services stretch thin often these people are left without the help they need.

A report released in January 2021 on behalf of the drugs policy and social inclusion unit found that 23% of respondents reported using more illicit drugs, and 15% reported using the same amount, citing anxiety and boredom as the driving factor behind their usage.

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The most commonly used substance was cannabis, followed by cocaine or crack cocaine and ecstasy (MDMA).

However, cocaine or crack cocaine and ecstasy have seen a reduction in use since the pandemic with fewer opportunities to use and reduced availability of drugs cited as the main reasons for the reduction in their use.

“We’ve had about a 100% increase of people seeking help”

Elizabeth Sweeney 

The report also found that support services were hit hard by Covid-19.

Counselling sessions were forced to take place over the phone or through video calls, rather than face-to-face meetings.

“We’ve had about a 100% increase [in 2020] of people seeking help, and the drugs would have been probably 70% of the increase and the alcohol would have been the rest,” says Elizabeth Sweeney, member of the Finglas Addiction Support Team (Fast).

With regards to how the counselling takes place, Fast has had to adapt. 

“The initial assessment is by phone,” Sweeney says, “we have to cut down on the footfall in the building, because we have to go by the HSE regulations.

“And then when it comes to the one-to-one, we would have to schedule them for an hour, but it’s for 45 minutes with key workers allowed 15 minutes to tidy up.

“We would have a reduced amount than we’d usually have,” she continues. “If we had eight in a day now, we could have had 14 or 15. That means we have a waiting list, and our books are full all the time and we’re constantly playing catch-up.”

Image by Holger Detje from Pixabay

With services for those seeking help stretched to their limits due to reduced time available and capacity, many people who struggle with substance misuse are battling their problems alone.

“As the months went on, the amounts I smoke went up and I became more and more anxious”


“When Covid first hit last year I thought it would be for two or so weeks, but that has turned into over a year. At first nothing really changed, but as everything shut down and we were told to stay home I had nothing to do – boredom took over,” explains a man who wishes to remain anonymous.

“First I started smoking more weed. When I couldn’t find that I’d turn to drink.

“As the months went on,” he continues, “the amounts I [would] smoke went up and I became more and more anxious with no end of the lockdown in sight. The lack of routine, not seeing people and boredom, I’d say, are the main reasons for my change in habits. I suppose this isn’t the best for my mental health either.”

When asked if he would seek counselling the man said, “I would but I don’t know where to look. Like, I feel when this eventually comes to an end and things start going back to normal, hopefully my habits will go back to normal.”

With the end of lockdown in sight and the rollout of vaccines advancing, there are hopes that society will return to some sort of normality soon, allowing those who need help to get it and resume the lives they lived prior to the pandemic.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with the issues mentioned in this article, text Mental Health Ireland’s drug line at 50808 or contact Alcoholics Anonymous Ireland.

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