When people feel stressed, it’s well-known that they are more prone to self-medicate and seek relief by using alcohol or illicit drugs. So, it makes sense that substance abuse increases during economic downturns.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the University of Colorado Denver have provided empirical evidence to support that hypothesis, with a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
They also found that when the economy is booming, the use of certain drugs, like LSD and PCP, typically increases.
“Problematic use (i.e., substance use disorder) goes up significantly when the economy weakens,” says Christopher Carpenter, one of the lead researchers. “Our results are more limited in telling us why this happens.”
Researchers say it’s possible that people turn to substance use as a means of coping with a job loss or other major life changes caused by economic pressures, but their particular study did not identify an exact cause and effect.
The study showed that a downward shift in the economy has the biggest impact on the use of painkillers and hallucinogens. Rates of substance abuse disorders were significantly higher for those two categories than any other class of drug.
Researchers also found the change in disorder rates was highest for white adult males, a group which was one of the hardest hit during the Great Recession. They say more research is needed to determine exactly how the economy and drug use are related, but they say the study highlighted some key groups for prevention and treatment workers to target during future economic downturns.
Despite some lingering questions, researchers were able to show the significance of the economy’s role in problematic substance use. The study showed that even a small change in the unemployment rate can have a tremendous impact on the risks for substance abuse disorders.
“For each percentage point increase in the state unemployment rate, these estimates represent about a 6 percent increase in the likelihood of having a disorder involving analgesics and an 11 percent increase in the likelihood of having a disorder involving hallucinogens,” the authors write.
Previous studies have focused on the economy’s link to marijuana and alcohol, with many looking at young people in particular. This study is one of the first to highlight illicit drugs, which given the current opioid epidemic, provides vital information for those working to reduce problematic drug use.
The study has particular significance for treatment facilities and public policy makers. During economic downturns, government agencies typically look to cut spending on treatment programs as a way to save money, something researchers say may be more costly in the end.
“Our results suggest that this is unwise,” Carpenter says. “Such spending would likely be particularly effective during downturns since rates of substance use disorders are increasing when unemployment rates rise, at least for disorders involving prescription painkillers and hallucinogens.”
The Vanderbilt-UC-SAMSHA study is somewhat unique, since most of the research in this field had focused on mostly alcohol and cannabis. But this study deals with illicit drugs other than marijuana.
The data shows that while drug use in general increases during difficult economic times, some drugs become more popular when the economy is thriving. “LSD use is significantly procyclical,” the report states, meaning that people use it more in good times. On the other hand, drugs like Ecstasy are “countercyclical.”
What’s most alarming is that, according to the researchers, drug treatment policies get significantly cut during economic downturns, which seems like precisely the wrong move at the wrong time.
“Our results are important for understanding optimal policy responses to economic booms and busts,” they write. “Most debates over public funding for drug treatment, penalties for illicit drug use, and other drug policy levers ignore the role of economic conditions. Our results highlight the perils of this omission.”