The pandemic continues to impact our lives in ways we’re still struggling to understand. That’s why ARG scientist Priscilla Martinez, PhD, and colleagues are working to better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic affected us, in particular our alcohol and substance use, co-use and mental health.
The new NIAAA-funded longitudinal study will look at how alcohol and substance use affected our experiences and how changes such as job loss, family infections and deaths, and increases in mental distress altered how we used substances. The ability to compare pre-pandemic data with data collected in 2020 and 2021, will form a more complete picture of the pandemic’s effects and how we coped.
Even though Priscilla is beginning to wrap up her prestigious K-award and received funding to direct the next cycle of the National Alcohol Survey (NAS), she knew this opportunity was one she could not pass up.
And we couldn’t pass up speaking with her about the project and to congratulate her on receiving her first R01 grant.
ARG: Priscilla, congratulations on receiving your first R01 grant–that’s huge–and you received such an incredible score!
PM: Thank you so much. It’s a goal all early-career investigators work towards, myself included. I’m just excited by the work we’ll be doing and the team I’ll be doing it with. As the reviewers noted, we have a stellar team!
ARG: To start, can you tell us about the project–give us an overview of what you and your team will be doing.
PM: The purpose of the project is to build a cohort of people that we follow over time to see how things have changed—how their lives have changed over the last three years. We’ll have three data collection time-points. The first is pre-pandemic, working with data we collected from the National Alcohol Survey in 2019 and early 2020, then data collected in 2021 through our NAS Covid-19 supplement survey (completed), and a survey we’ll be conducting in 2022.
ARG: So you’re actually able to compare two pandemic datasets with a pre-pandemic dataset?
PM: Yes, exactly. It allows us to really see true changes and those changes are being measured directly through participants’ experiences rather than using other types of data. For example, if you’re trying to assess whether people were drinking more after Covid-19 than before and you don’t have population data from a recent pre-pandemic period, you could use alcohol sales data as a stand-in. However, that tells you how much alcohol people bought, but not necessarily how much they drank, how often they drank, and neither does it tell you why they were drinking (or not). Our surveys will be able to tell us if people were drinking more or less after, how much and what type of drinks, and what factors were associated with those changes. We’ll also be able to see how the impact of the pandemic differed across groups of people, like women and Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), and what drinking trends were over the pandemic, which is something missing from the current research.
ARG: That’s so cool!
PM: It is! We’ll also be able to look at their mental health before the pandemic and how that may have changed over the past two years.
So this isn’t a retrospective study–we won’t be asking people, “Think back to before Covid-19…” We will have longitudinal cohort data to work from.
“We’ll be able to measure the true impact of the pandemic…It gives us a chance to hear their stories–to dig deeper into their experiences of living through a pandemic.”
ARG: That seems pretty important especially since it’s possible that the pandemic may skew how people remember life before we were in lockdown.
PM: That’s right. People might not have a very accurate account of what they were doing before Covid.
Another layer we’re adding to the project is to do qualitative interviews with individual participants.
ARG: What will that entail?
PM: We’ll be doing personal interviews with 40 participants who are drinking above the NIAAA low-risk drinking guidelines. The interviews will be conducted by myself and co-investigator Cat Munroe, PhD, who also has experience in qualitative research. There will be a focus on Black, Latino and sexual minority drinkers as well—the interviews will oversample these groups to ensure they’re represented and their voices are heard, and because studies to date show they were disproportionately impacted.
ARG: What do you hope to learn from the qualitative work?
PM: The individual interviews give us a chance to hear participant stories. It allows us to dig deeper into their experiences of living through a pandemic and what role alcohol played in those experiences. I think that’s so important. Otherwise, we’re only looking at numbers. We’ll be asking questions such as how pandemic impacts, such as job loss, the loss of loved ones, social-isolation, and being ill themselves affected their drinking. And then the reverse – how did drinking affect how they dealt with these big life changes.
We’ll also be asking them what would be helpful should they want to cut back on their drinking—what resources and support they would use.
So I think of the quantitative data—what we gather from the national surveys—as the bones of the project. We’ll learn about the pandemic’s impact on the trajectory of people’s drinking and mental health, whereas the qualitative data are like the meat of the project, informing us about the lived experiences of using alcohol during a global pandemic.
ARG: That’s a good way to describe it—you’ll be capturing a more complete picture.
PM: A more complete picture of a pandemic’s impact on substance use—that’s our intent.
ARG: Such important work. Thank you so much for the introduction. We’ll be checking in with you to see how the project is going. We can’t wait to learn what you learn.