In South Africa, the increasing cost of living is taking a toll on many households. Whether it’s soaring fuel costs or escalating energy prices, the financial strain is palpable. Earlier this year, a national survey revealed that 23% of households were grappling with the challenge of meeting their financial obligations. Experts predict that this situation is only going to worsen in 2023. Financial concerns are among the leading contributors to anxiety and depression. Disturbingly, over 1.5 million people in South Africa are currently contending with both debt and mental health issues, which are in turn fueling addiction.

What Is Driving the Cost-of-Living Crisis?

While many people attribute the rising prices to issues within the energy sector, the reality is that we find ourselves navigating the aftermath of a global pandemic, ongoing Brexit-related disruptions, and the Ukraine conflict. This convergence of challenges has set the stage for a financial crisis. South Africa has been particularly hard-hit, grappling with high inflation and escalating tax rates that only add fuel to the fire. This pervasive uncertainty is taking a heavy toll on mental health and has a direct impact on individuals struggling with alcohol and drug addiction.

Economic Impact of the Pandemic

When the world came to a standstill due to the pandemic, there were initial savings to be had. Commutes were suspended, nights out transitioned into nights in, and exotic vacations were canceled. By the time restrictions were lifted, people had extra disposable income, which led to increased demand for goods and services. However, due to skeletal staff and supply chain disruptions, businesses had no choice but to raise prices. In addition to the stress associated with the rising cost of living, factors such as remote work and reduced physical contact contributed to an increase in alcoholism. Public Health South Africa reported a 21% rise in alcoholic liver-related deaths in 2021.

War in Ukraine

Following the invasion of Ukraine, oil, gas, energy, and food prices began to surge. Apart from affecting everyday living costs, the fear and anxiety stemming from the war can exacerbate conditions like anxiety, depression, and substance misuse. Conflicts and wars have a known correlation with mental health problems in individuals who experience trauma and can act as a trigger for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When you combine these emotional challenges with financial worries, the result can be catastrophic.

Brexit-Related Supply Chain Issues

Brexit has exacerbated the cost-of-living crisis, with some South African companies forced out of business due to supply chain complications, added bureaucratic hurdles, and escalating shipping expenses. Job losses and financial insecurity often drive individuals toward substance abuse as they turn to alcohol and drugs as a means of coping with stress. During the last major economic crisis in the late eighties, job losses were identified as a contributing factor in the increase in harmful drinking, particularly among men.

Why Is the Cost-of-Living Crisis Contributing to Addiction?

The cost-of-living crisis has a profound impact on individuals who are already experiencing financial hardship or struggling with mounting debts. During the pandemic, there was a noticeable surge in mental health issues and suicide attempts. Now, with the added pressure of financial problems, it is likely that more people will turn to alcohol and drugs. A recent survey discovered that nearly a third of adults have experienced a relapse into addiction, with almost two-thirds attributing the cost-of-living crisis as a major trigger for stress, anxiety, and trauma—precisely the emotions that feed addiction.

Concerns about meeting financial obligations or putting food on the table can trigger a relapse. This prevailing state of anxiety can also indirectly contribute to mental health problems associated with destructive and addictive behaviors. Some of the reasons people may increase alcohol consumption or turn to drugs include:

  • Feelings of Loneliness and Isolation
  • Relationship Problems
  • Depression
  • Poor Sleep or Insomnia
  • Skipping Meals
  • Boredom and Restlessness
  • Lack of Financial Resources to Attend Therapy

What Are the Financial Implications of Addiction?

Ironically, while individuals may turn to alcohol or drugs to escape their financial troubles, these substances come with their own costs. Alcohol, in particular, remains surprisingly affordable in South Africa. According to one health report, it’s possible to consume 14 units of alcohol for the same price as a coffee from a high-street chain. However, when money is tight, individuals struggling with substance abuse may resort to purchasing cheaper, higher-strength options. In either case, addiction incurs significant annual costs.

Addiction also carries a substantial societal burden in terms of healthcare expenses. A 2021 report revealed that the drugs used to treat alcohol abuse cost South Africa’s healthcare system ZAR 4.5 million each year. Individuals grappling with addiction are more likely to engage in reckless behavior, which places additional strain on law enforcement, leading to an increase in addiction-related crimes such as burglaries and drunk driving. Other financial consequences that contribute to economic strain include absenteeism, presenteeism, and job loss.

For individuals confronting alcohol or drug addiction while dealing with a limited income, accessing professional help can be challenging. Nonetheless, the annual cost of addiction in terms of work, family, and health will invariably exceed the investment in private rehabilitation.