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Alcohol and other drug use in Northern Ireland increased by two-thirds (60%) during the Covid-19 pandemic with boredom given as the top reason (94%), according to new research from Ulster University.

The study, commissioned by the Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drug Alliance (NIADA) and launched at Stormont Buildings, examined the impacts of Covid-19 on NIADA clients’ drug use, physical and mental health needs, as well as the impact on substance use services.

The research found that while almost two-thirds (58%) of those surveyed used one main drug during the pandemic, 42% used two or more other drugs. Alongside boredom, feeling anxious or depressed (92%) and social isolation (81%) were also given as reasons for increased drug usage. For clients in the 30-44 years age group, being furloughed and working from home were substantial factors for some clients.

Other findings of the research include:

  • The majority (76%) reported using alcohol as their main drug; the second most reported main drug was cannabis (34%), followed by cocaine or crack cocaine (15%), benzodiazepines (13%) and pregabalin (12%);
  • A marked change in drug markets was increased online purchasing using encrypted messaging services, social media applications and other online services;
  • An increase in injecting-related harms and polydrug use was identified;
  • Deteriorating mental health was uncovered as a major issue;
  • Those already socially marginalised reported they were experiencing elevated levels of harm.

Despite higher demands on drug treatment and support providers in the voluntary and community sector, the study found services remained flexible, responsive and innovatively adapted. Services were not without challenges, but most clients (71%) were satisfied that services met their needs.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Julie Harris, Lecturer in Criminology at Ulster University said:

“These findings highlight that despite challenges and increased demand for substance use services, voluntary and community providers innovatively adapted services to meet clients immediate and continuing needs.

"However, the findings also make it clear that political, organisational and financial investment across departments and sectors is needed to tackle the continued impacts of increasing drug-related harm in Northern Ireland. Collaborative and inter-departmental working is essential to the implementation of the Substance Use Strategy by the Department of Health to mitigate the multi-faceted reasons for problematic substance use and related harm.”

Chair of the Northern Ireland Alcohol and Drug Alliance (NIADA), Pauline Campbell, added:

“The findings in this study are extremely important. Collaborative working among NIADA members and Ulster University has provided much needed evidence on the issues faced by those who are impacted by substance use. This research has also underlined how working together can strengthen the voice of the statutory, voluntary and community sector.”