Unemployment and substance use go hand in hand, which is why the coronavirus pandemic is likely to lead to increased rates of addiction in America.

Social distancing measures, business shutdowns and lack of customers have sent tens of millions of Americans home without a job. The latest numbers show that unemployment rates jumped to 4.4% in March, but some economists believe this is the beginning of a trajectory that could lead to nearly one-third of America’s workforce becoming unemployed. Aside from the financial impact, another dangerous side effect of this increase would likely be a sharp rise in the number of Americans addicted to drugs or alcohol.

How Unemployment Creates Addiction

Research into over 130 studies found links between substance use, unemployment and relapse. In fact, studies show that even the fear of job loss can increase the consumption of alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs. Those who are unemployed are much more likely to use drugs or alcohol and develop substance use disorders.

  • Compared to employed individuals, unemployed people are 87% more likely to report heavy alcohol use and 29% more likely to develop alcohol dependence.
  • Unemployed people are 65% more likely to have illicit drug use and 57% more likely to develop a dependency on drugs.

Those in recovery are also more likely to return to substance use, as the research shows that job loss is a substantial trigger for relapse.

If this relationship between substance abuse and unemployment holds steady, the result of mass American unemployment would be millions more people dealing with substance abuse and addiction. Further, these increased addiction rates would place a heavy burden on the American economy and health care system.

The Financial Impact of Addiction

For an individual, the cost of maintaining a long-term addiction can amount to tens of thousands of dollars each year. On a broader scale, however, addiction costs Americans billions of dollars annually.

The economic impact of just one million Americans developing substance dependence is astronomical. These account for $4 billion in direct health care costs, as well as $20 billion in total economic costs. Addiction also impacts employers, as people with substance use disorders account for 500 million lost workdays each year and are 3.5 times more likely to be involved in a workplace accident.

A Greater Need for Recovery Resources

While the coronavirus is currently the greatest public health threat to the American people, it’s important not to forget the substance abuse crisis that already existed and may worsen as a result of its impact. In 2018, around 21.2 million Americans aged 12 or older needed treatment for substance abuse. Of these, only 1.4 million received it.

If America is potentially on the verge of a large increase in rates of substance use disorders due to job loss, it’s important that information and resources about substance abuse prevention and treatment are made widely available. We regularly publish updates on recovery topics, including newswellness and tips for strengthening your recovery. We also offer a platform for anyone to host free online recovery meetings.

We know these are unprecedented times, with many people facing uncertainty and major life disruptions. If you or a loved one is developing or returning to unhealthy coping strategies as a result of COVID-19, The Recovery Village can help. Our facilities remain open during this time and we also offer teletherapy, to support those who are quarantined or practicing social distancing. Contact us today to learn more about recovery resources that can work well for your specific situation and personal needs.

Jonathan Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more
Stacey Henson
Medically Reviewed By – Stacey Henson, LCSW, ACSW
Stacey Henson, LCSW, ACSW, is the Community Outreach Director for Advanced Recovery Systems, helping clients, families, and organizations find quality treatment options for mental and behavioral health disorders. Read more

Bureau of Labor Statistics. “THE EMPLOYMENT SITUATION — MARCH 2020.” April 3, 2020. Accessed April 17, 2020.

Faria-e-Castro, Miguel. “Back-of-the-Envelope Estimates of Next Q[…]s Unemployment Rate.” Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, March 24, 2020. Accessed April 17, 2020.

Henkel, D. “Unemployment and substance use: a review[…]erature (1990-2010).” Current Drug Abuse Reviews, March 2011. Accessed April 17, 2020.

Compton, W. M., Gfroerer, J., Conway, K. P., & Finger, M. S. “Unemployment and substance outcomes in t[…]ed States 2002-2010.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, September 1, 2014. Accessed April 20, 2020.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indi[…]n the United States.” August 2019. Accessed April 17, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.