Mental health and addiction experts are warning that the COVID-19 pandemic may derail the fragile progress they’ve made addressing the opioid crisis. As fear, anxiety and economic uncertainties mount, officials fear a new wave of addiction in the making.
A third crisis.
Of course, we’re all asking: “How long?”
But now we’re also asking a more threatening question: “What’s next?”
For individuals in recovery, facing COVID-19 (and its frightening mortality rate), along with the fight for sobriety, there’s now a third threat–the specter of job loss and severe economic hardship. Mental health and addiction recovery advocates have asked Washington for nearly $50 billion in emergency funds, which they say is necessary to prevent the country from backsliding on hard-fought opioid progress. Without new support, they caution, the problems that plagued the opioid response effort — the lack of providers, social stigma, and access to treatment itself — will be exacerbated by the pandemic. The federal dollars can’t come too soon.
“I think a lot of people are coping with the stress by turning to drugs and alcohol,” said Devin Reaves, executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition.1
The numbers suggest that Reaves is right. Alcohol sales surged 55 percent in the first week lock downs accelerated across the country, according to market research firm Nielsen.2 Meanwhile, the federal mental health hotline fielded nearly nine times as many calls in March compared to a year earlier.
And mounting data suggests that cases of domestic abuse are rising sharply, flourishing in the conditions created by the pandemic.
A glimmer of hope?
While there is plenty of bad news, there are small victories. We’ve heard from many addiction experts that the COVID-19 pandemic could encourage many to seek treatment for the first time. Casual drug users who may fear supply shortages (and withdrawal symptoms), may be more willing to try medication-assisted treatment programs. There are a lot of different ways to hit “rock bottom.”
“The opportunity to buy drugs from the illicit market is less,” said Brooke Feldman, who manages two outpatient clinics in Philadelphia. “Some folks may say this is the time.”3
There were many who maintained that COVID-19 would kill recovery, but that’s not what many facilities are seeing happen. “It’s been a boom because people are really using it [the pandemic] as a way to re-focus,” said Nancy Beste, executive director of the Mountain Medical Road to Recovery in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
To answer the need, beleaguered facilities across the country are quickly and creatively adapting and re-tooling to help patients. Providers are conducting face-to-face group meetings via TeleHealth smartphone apps like KipuMessenger (part of the KipuEMR
) along with regular check-ins by phone. Though some clinics have instituted screening procedures for COVID-19, in most places, people on medication-assisted treatment can still get the doses they need. And last month, Vermont health officials rushed to launched a new website to help people with addiction, vthelplink.org
. New Hampshire continues to operate The Doorway
, the state’s system for connecting people struggling with addiction that can be reached by calling 211. “We need to quickly find ways to communicate with our patients and create a sense of routine and safety,” said Cynthia Seivwright, director of Vermont’s Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs. “When people’s routines are changed, it can put them at higher risk of relapse.”4
Most treatment professionals agree that the longer the lock down lasts, the more dangerous the situation becomes for addicts.
Getting to the ‘other side’ of the 3-headed monster.
This isn’t an extinction event. At a certain point, the pandemic will recede. But yes, it will certainly leave behind an economic crisis of some proportion, affecting Americans in ways and varying degrees that are impossible to predict. Questions for which there are no easy answers. Right now, we are all concerned about joblessness, inflation, interest rates, the prospect of three months…or six months…or a year…two years?
Many fear that so much good work–and ground gained over the past few years–is being undone. Yet, the men and women charged with treating recovering addicts and alcoholics–those on the front lines, are moving forward. We applaud the determination and care that the treatment community has displayed during this crisis. They’re open for business, reaching out in any way they can, committed to their patients and their communities.
The strength to survive and to recover
There is an arc of this and every crisis, and thanks to the efforts of those who are working for economic, social and personal recovery, we will reach “the other side.” We will emerge to a new day–with a new strength to endure hardship, a new appreciation for each other, a stronger country and a new hope for the future. And yes, a new resolve to continue the fight against the pandemic of SUD.
But before that day arrives, there’s much work to be done. We must find new ways to serve patients, new ways to stay connected when social distancing keeps us apart, new ways to create affirming relationships from afar and new ways to prosper in a challenging economic environment.