Increases in substance use and coping behaviors in response to COVID-19 among young women in mental health treatment

Callie Wang, BA

McLean Hospital – Research Assistant

Scientific Abstract

Background: Increases in substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic have been noted, particularly among young adults and women. However, this trend has not been investigated in treatment populations. In order to examine the ways in which young women in treatment were coping with the pandemic, we assessed self-reported increases in substance use, as well as healthy coping behaviors.

Methods: Participants (ages 18-25; N=44) with substance use and co-occurring disorders were recruited from four inpatient and residential treatment programs between December 2020–May 2021. Participants completed surveys as part of a pilot study examining a web-based gender-specific intervention. Baseline data were used to examine self-reported increases in substance use and healthy coping behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Results: Half of the sample reported increased cannabis use, 43% increased alcohol use, 32% increased tobacco use, and 18% increased illegal drug use. The most common primary diagnoses were mood disorders (64%), Borderline Personality Disorder (14%), and anxiety disorders (11%); 84% of the sample expressed interest in making changes to their substance use. Few participants reported increases in relaxing/resting (30%), pleasurable activities (14%), exercising (14%), meditating (14%), and connecting socially (14%).

Conclusions: Results of this study show that during the COVID-19 pandemic, young women receiving mental health treatment reported increases in substance use. Although most expressed interest in changing their substance use, increases in healthy coping behaviors were less common. These results indicate that there is a need for treatment programs to assess substance use changes during the pandemic, and to help young women develop alternative coping strategies. This study, though limited by small sample size and cross-sectional design, emphasizes this population’s vulnerability to increased substance use during the pandemic. Given the ongoing pandemic, further study is needed to assess changes in substance use and to develop interventions that address the needs of young women with co-occurring psychiatric disorders and substance use.


Live Zoom Session – March 9th

research Areas


Callie L. Wang, BA, Margaux Kanamori, Scott L. Rauch, MD, Shelly F. Greenfield, MD, MPH, Dawn E. Sugarman, PhD

Principal Investigator

Dawn E. Sugarman, PhD