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Anxiety and alcohol program reaches youth via social media

9 August 2021

Successful free online program amended for covid, avoids stigma

New program reduces anxiety and problem drinking by reaching youth via digital media - where they spend much of their time

A video promoting Inroads on Facebook

How do you help young people living with anxiety, impacted by the pandemic, and at risk of drinking alcohol excessively to cope with the uncertainty, stress and anxiety? Research led by the University of Sydney has found that a free online program is helping, and are using social media to get to youth on their medium of choice.

Led by the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre, researchers developed the Inroads program for young adults with concerns about anxiety and drinking. Now with new funding support from the Australian Department of Health, the online program is freely available to help youth cope with the challenges of ongoing pandemic. Trial results just released show that the program is associated with significant improvements in anxiety symptoms and reductions in harmful alcohol use.

The results are detailed today in EClinicalMedicine, published by The Lancet group.

“The Inroads program is designed to be easy for young people to access and is the first to address both anxiety and alcohol issues, which are often linked,” said study lead, Associate Professor Lexine Stapinski.

“We sought to avoid the stigma some people feel with face-to-face sessions and reached out where young people spend much of their time – on TikTok, Instagram, and other social media.”

The clinical trial evaluated the Inroads program combined with follow-up phone/email support from a psychologist, compared to a control group receiving only factsheets encouraging safe alcohol use. Now, the program has gone fully online (with triggers to alert researchers if support from a psychologist is required) to enable it to be accessed at scale. It is now open to Australians aged 17-30.

A new animated video campaign on the Inroads Facebook says: “Many young Australians experience anxiety, stress, nervousness or worry; it’s also common to rely on alcohol to cope. Sound like you? Visit inroads.org.au today.”

Key findings from the trial:

  • The average number of daily drinks more than halved, to 1.53 drinks a day.
  • Episodes of binge drinking (5+ standard drinks in a session) fell from about twice a week to less than once a week (3.8 times each month).
  • Before using the Inroads program, 90 percent of people had clinically significant anxiety symptoms, which reduced to 43 percent after using the Inroads program.

The Inroads participants and control group experienced similar alcohol reductions in the short term (2 months), but only participants receiving the Inroads program maintained these improvements at the six-month checkpoint. Participants who received the Inroads program also reported reduced symptoms of anxiety and stress compared to the control group. 

Associate Professor Stapinski said that in response to COVID-19, an additional trial of the program was launched this year that assesses whether the program helps mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on young people’s stress, anxiety and alcohol use. 

“Young Australians have reported that their anxiety got worse as a result of the pandemic,” said Dr Stapinski, from the Faculty of Medicine and Health. 

“Drinking to cope with anxiety and stress has also risen according to recent surveys, so we are pleased to be able to provide a tool to help during these times of lockdown and uncertainty.”

The paper notes the program fills a critical gap: “Despite the developmental connections identified between anxiety and alcohol use… there are no existing youth-focused interventions that target anxiety symptoms, hazardous alcohol use and the interconnections between them.”

About Inroads

The Inroads program, developed by the University of Sydney, comprises five weekly web-based modules, taking about 30 minutes each, including written information, videos, participant reflection and interactive exercises.

The program is evidence based, using cognitive behavioural therapy, where participants are guided to think realistically and take a stepped approach to facing their fears. It also encourages participants to explore their motivations to change and set goals. 

The program is tailored to ‘emerging adulthood’ as a key window of opportunity for intervention to prevent problem behaviours establishing.

Module: What is drinking thinking?

Screenshot from an Inroads module.

About the study

123 eligible participants were recruited to the study between 19 December 2017 and 11 September 2018 via a comprehensive, targeted strategy including media coverage, social media, distribution of flyers at educational institutions, and referral from youth services. Eligible participants were i) aged between 17 to 24 years and living in Australia, ii) reporting hazardous levels of alcohol use, and iii) reporting at least mild anxiety symptoms.

With the second program trial just launched, it will likely extend into mid-next year.

Emerging adults aged 17 to 30 are encouraged to register to participate in the program, at inroads.org.au.


Declaration

The trial was funded by Australian Rotary Health and the National Health and Medical Research Council. The Inroads program is currently available through funding provided by the Australian Government Department of Health. 

Vivienne Reiner

Media and Public Relations Adviser | Health
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