Stuck at home during the pandemic with mountains of stress and no way to relieve it, the obvious choice for many adults was to indulge in alcohol. But a new study shows that while men drank more during the early pandemic months, their drinking then steadily decreased by an average of 20% during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that cutting down on alcohol is overall great for your health, this decrease in drinking is certainly good news. But (you knew the “but” was coming) even in the face of the decline, men felt worse about their drinking – and counterintuitively, self-reported problem drinking was found to be on the rise.
“This finding was a little bit unexpected because men were reporting that they were drinking less on average over time, yet their perception of the problems they were having due to alcohol use was increasing at the same time,” says Joan Tucker, Ph.D.a senior behavioral scientist at the nonprofit research organization RAND Corporationand lead author of the study. On average, men’s score on a clinical survey for assessing problems related to alcohol increased by 69%.
To explain these seemingly conflicting points, you need to look back at the onset of the pandemic. Plenty of research raised concerns about an increase in alcohol consumption throughout the US – with alcohol sales increasing by 55% during the third week of March 2020.
The trend, it seems, did not last. Researchers found that during the pandemic, women generally drank less alcohol than men. But while women’s use remained stable throughout the first nine months of the pandemic, men’s decreased steadily – basically bringing women and men to the same alcohol use per day. This is according to a study that surveyed 1,100 men and women between the ages of 30 and 80 and tracked their drinking patterns from March 2020 to May 2020 for one studythen from May 2020 to March 2021 for this second study. They asked about how many drinks the participants averaged per day in the last month and whether they were experiencing any of up to 15 adverse consequences of alcohol, such as taking foolish risks or having relationship issues.
It’s in these self-assessments that researchers found the heart of the contradiction. “We looked at their perceptions that their drinking was having negative consequences on their relationships, and that they were unhappy because of their drinking, and that it had affected functioning in different ways,” Tucker says. “We found significant increases in their perceived alcohol-related problems.”
With this data, it’s impossible for the researchers to tease out the exact reasons behind these findings. But there are plenty of potential explanations. For one, Tucker says, men may have cut back on their drinking as they experienced more problems from more alcohol. On the other hand, they may have just perceived that they were having more problems because the pandemic was adding more challenges to their plates – such as work issues or caregiving at home – and these challenges served to shine a light on how alcohol was negatively impacting their lives.
Of course, they could just have an increasingly negative outlook on, well, everything and be looking for a scapegoat. Because men are facing a mental health crisis – and the pandemic certainly has not made it any easier to deal with.