Sickness. Grief. Global recessions. Lockdowns. War. With them, isolation, uncertainty, loneliness, and fear. Let’s face it, these last three years have been a lot. They’ve taken their toll on our physical, emotional, and mental health (1, 2, 3, 4).
For people at risk of or experiencing substance use disorders (SUD), life in the age of COVID-19 has presented its own unique constellation of challenges, as well as a number of important opportunities for health and healing. So, what impacts have the worst public health crisis in modern history had on those facing addiction, and how has recovery evolved in the wake of the pandemic?
Coping in the Time of COVID
A large and growing body of research is already proving what many of us have long suspected: That the emotional and mental health harms of COVID may be as great as the physical ones, if not greater, for large segments of the population. Studies show that rates of mental illness, ranging from depression and anxiety to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have surged in the aftermath of the pandemic, even among those with no history of such conditions (2, 5, 6, 7, 8).
It’s not difficult to understand why. In addition to the fear of the virus itself, the threat COVID posed not only to our own health but to the safety of those we love most, we’ve also had to contend with an unprecedented disruption of “normal” life. Schools and businesses were forced to take their operations online, often with little advanced warning or preparation.
Those who could not make the transition to remote work either due to the nature of their jobs or simply because of a lack of access to or familiarity with home office technologies often were faced with a devastating choice–either risk exposing yourself and your family to the virus or lose some or all of your household income.
Meanwhile, families with school-aged children grappled with the challenges of online learning, including the stark reality that children without access to broadband internet or the technology to use it risked being left behind. Then, there was the often formidable task of transitioning to an entirely new mode of learning. All this while parents who simply could not remain at home scrambled to find childcare.
That is not all that the COVID storm brought to bear, because, as if these stressors were not enough, many of us had to face them largely alone. Pandemic protocols required us to retreat to our homes, to forgo time with friends, to celebrate special occasions with family through video conferencing, to bid goodbye to our dying loved ones via FaceTime or Zoom.
In the face of so much fear and sadness, loss, and uncertainty, it can be no surprise that people searched for comfort wherever they could find it. All too often, though, the struggle led the hurting and afraid to seek solace at the bottom of a bottle or in a handful of pills.
Research has shown that not only have rates of mental illness skyrocketed in the pandemic era, so, too, have the numbers of individuals experiencing addiction. The evidence shows that not only were those with pre-existing SUD more likely to relapse but also that their substance use significantly increased during the pandemic (8, 10, 11, 12).
The same research also indicates that the emergence of new addiction disorders increased during the pandemic and that these effects were felt across all population demographics, from adolescents to the elderly. The evidence indicates, however, that racial and ethnic minorities were particularly at risk for the worsening of SUD or the initiation of the disorder (10).
COVID’s Impact on Recovery and Care
The profound impact of COVID on addiction doesn’t just lie in the surge of new SUDs, the rise in relapse rates, or the worsening of the condition among active users. The ongoing lockdowns and the threat of the virus, in general, left many of those facing SUD bereft of the usual tools they relied on to help them stay clean.
Untold numbers of treatment centers and recovery support groups were required either to shut down or significantly reduce their operating hours and service capacity (13, 14, 15). Rates of overdose and addiction-related deaths rose because shelter-in-place orders made patients unable or unwilling to seek timely care (13, 14, 15)
For still others, the lack of access to essential medical care and/or the recovery support teams on which they depended increased the incidences not only of relapse or the exacerbation of the SUD, but also of high-risk behaviors. More specifically, there is mounting evidence that those experiencing SUD were more likely to defy social distancing requirements and to risk viral exposure while under the influence (16).
The consequences of this high-risk behavior in the pandemic era, evidence shows, have been potentially devastating for this population. This is due both to the lack of access to timely care and also to the inherent health vulnerabilities that so often accompany addiction, such as reduced pulmonary function in some individuals with alcohol dependency (17).
A Ray of Hope
As bleak as these pandemic times have been, particularly for those experiencing addiction, there is increasing optimism that some good will be borne of the crisis. The scope and the long duration of the pandemic required more than a little innovation among those in recovery and their caregivers, loved ones, healthcare providers, and support networks.
For example, in the wake of the pandemic the popularity, and efficacy, of online addiction support groups and treatment programs has exploded (18, 19). This has been combined with new, more modernized approaches to addiction medicine that includes technology-facilitated care, from telehealth services to remote patient monitoring (20).
What this means is that those facing addiction, as well as those dedicated to helping them fight it, now have more prolific and more innovative weapons to fight this disease than ever before. And these are tools that have been tested in the face of one of the worst global health threats in modern history.
It also means more, because these weapons are not only good for use in the pandemic era. With these innovations, people who may have once been denied access to recovery support and mental and behavioral health care can now benefit as well. The elderly, those with disabilities, those without transportation, and even those who simply resist face-to-face support can receive help, can know at last they’re not alone and that a dependency-free future is possible.
How Bayshore Can Help
We are dedicated to helping those who desire a life free from addiction. If you or someone you love has experienced a new or worsening addiction in the wake of COVID, our dedicated team of recovery specialists is here to help you. Contact us today to discuss how our multidisciplinary experts can work with you or your loved one to develop a personalized treatment program and help pave the way to a healthy, happy, and sober tomorrow.