A longitudinal approach to understanding risk factors for problem alcohol use during the COVID-19 pandemic
Background: We conducted a longitudinal study to examine person-centered heterogeneity in problem drinking risk during the 2019 Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. We aimed to differentiate high- from low-risk subgroups of drinkers during the pandemic, to report on the longitudinal follow-up of the baseline sample reported in Wardell et al. (Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 44, 2020, 2073), and to examine how subgroups of drinkers differed on coping-related and pre-pandemic alcohol vulnerability factors. Methods: Canadian alcohol users (N = 364) were recruited for the study. Participants completed surveys at four waves (spaced 3 months apart), with the first being 7 to 8 weeks after the COVID-19 state of emergency began in Canada. The data were analyzed using a parallel process latent growth class analysis followed by general linear mixed models analysis. Results: We found evidence for three latent classes: individuals who increased drinking (class 1; n = 23), low-risk drinkers (class 2; n = 311), and individuals who decreased drinking (class 3; n = 30). Participants who increased (vs. those who decreased) problem drinking during the pandemic struggled with increasing levels of social disconnection and were also increasingly more likely to report drinking to cope with these issues. Those in the increasing class (relative to low-risk drinkers) reported increasing levels of depression during the study. Relative to low-risk drinkers, participants in the increasing class had higher pre-pandemic AUDIT scores, greater frequency of solitary drinking, and higher alcohol demand. Interestingly, participants in the decreasing class had the highest pre-pandemic AUDIT scores. Conclusions: We examined longitudinal data to identify subgroups of drinkers during the pandemic and to identify factors that may have contributed to increased problem drinking. Findings suggest that while most of the sample did not change their alcohol use, a small portion of individuals escalated use, while a small portion decreased their drinking. Identifying the vulnerability factors associated with increased drinking could aid in the development of preventative strategies and intervention approaches.