The coronavirus pandemic has upended life across the globe, making it an uneasy and uncertain existence. Thousands of people are fighting for their lives against this deadly virus as new cases, and deaths are reported daily. Millions have lost their jobs and are filing for unemployment in record numbers, while some businesses struggle to stay afloat.
The public health crisis, which has changed life as we’ve known it, also threatens our most vulnerable populations, including people recovering from substance abuse and addiction. With crisis comes instability on all levels — physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually — but how will this instability cost people who have worked hard to leave addiction behind?
Crisis Expected to Boost Relapse Rates
The recent turn of events can be highly triggering to people who are actively using substances and those who strive to live substance-free after battling addiction. However, the fear, stress, and loss of critical support systems can prompt people to return to the substances they traded for sobriety. Because of this, relapse and addiction rates are expected to increase amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It is something that is commonly seen following natural disasters and hard economic times, and observers are predicting that it will happen again.
Relapse, which is a return to drug and alcohol use after abstinence, is a gradual process that can take place over weeks or months before the first drink or drug is used. However, a crisis of this magnitude can immediately land someone in the emotional stage of relapse — the first one — thus, speeding up the process. The pull to reach for an alcoholic drink or drug or even cigarettes to cope with so many changes at once is strong, and giving in to this desire can lead one to abuse substances.
“Whenever there’s been a catastrophe like this, there is an increase in drug consumption across the board. Our alcohol drinking goes up, smoking goes up, and people relapse,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), told U.S. News and World Report. “We do know that drug-taking is one of the ways that people try to cope, and unfortunately, this can have very adverse effects.”
COVID-19-Related Distress and Substance Use
Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company is monitoring how the coronavirus outbreak is affecting Americans’ emotional and mental well-being and substance use trends.
Its recent report explains how the pandemic “will have a material impact on the behavioral health of society” and includes data from its March 2020 national consumer survey that aimed to gauge the signs of distress related to the outbreak.
According to the results, people whose jobs had been adversely affected were more likely to report they were either anxious and depressed or depressed but not anxious. They also reported in higher numbers that they were feeling high-to-moderate distress.
Respondents’ levels of reported substance use were also revealing. According to McKinsey’s data:
- 1 in 4 people reported binge drinking at least once in the past week;
- 1 out of 5 people reported taking prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons; and
- 1 out of 7 reported using illicit drugs.
“People are dealing with trauma and stress, and we know that other stressors and traumatic incidents — other types of disasters — have led people to increase their substance use,” Adam Leventhal, Ph.D., of the Health, Emotion, & Addiction Laboratory at the University of Southern California, recently told Business Insider.
How Self-Isolation Can Harm Recovery
Isolation, a key contributor to addiction, is one of the most challenging parts of this crisis for people with substance use disorders to deal with, notes Healthline. “Add general anxiety surrounding a virus, and addiction avoidance becomes even more difficult,” it says.
The physical and social distance that comes with stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders makes it easier for some people to want to use. With no one there to hold them accountable as they deal with taxing stress, fatigue, and anxiety, many feel they have nowhere else to turn.
“As recovering alcohol abusers, we are always told to keep busy. Nothing leads to relapse quicker than boredom. And being stuck in the house all day is boring,” blogger Mike Jacobsen, recently told Healthline.
Jacobsen, who is in self-isolation in Manchester, England, and involved in substance outreach, recently blogged about why boredom leads to relapse, writing, “All that free time makes it difficult to stay busy and engaged all of the time. Throw in the mix the coronavirus and having to stay at home and you have yourself a perfect recipe for poor decision making, restlessness, loneliness, anger and finally relapse.”
State orders that prohibit gatherings of any kind have also canceled in-person recovery group meetings for now. This is another hurdle for people who rely on these meetings to keep them grounded and connected to their recovery community.
Not being able to talk in person with trusted friends and sponsors can jeopardize the progress one has made in overcoming substance use. Some recovery groups are moving their meetings to online platforms so that they can stay in touch. Having someone to talk to virtually can help people remain focused and not feel so alone in facing the challenges ahead.
Relapse Is More Than Just a Step Backward
The emotional strain of dealing with this coronavirus emergency, while invisible, is present everywhere, from fear of the virus itself to the ability to cope with measures put in place to help treat the ill and work to prevent the virus from spreading. But once a relapse gets to the third and final stage, which is the physical part of actively using substances, it can be a slippery slope that can end in injury, overdose, or death.
Using puts the person back in addiction’s grip, and this is a dangerous place to be. One reason is after some time of not using, the body is no longer used to processing the substance in high amounts, so what used to be one’s usual dose is now a fatal one.
According to NIDA, 40 to 60 percent of people in recovery experience relapse, so it’s not unusual for this to happen. It advises that substance addiction be treated like any other chronic illness, such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension.
It is important to note that a relapse does not mean previous substance abuse treatment has failed. Instead, it means a person’s treatment needs to be reinstated, adjusted, or changed to help the person return to recovery.
The decision to use drugs and alcohol has consequences, and not all of them are too far down the road. Some people will develop a dependence on substances that will ultimately lead to an addiction that requires professional healthcare to treat.
It’s vital that people who relapse get the help they need as soon as they can. Every minute counts. If you or someone you know is in the early stages of relapse or has relapsed, you are strongly urged to reach out to an accredited facility that specializes in addiction treatment and mental health disorders.
It is common for substance use disorders to co-occur with mental health disorders. Facilities that offer dual diagnosis treatment are ideal. This approach addresses both disorders at the same time, optimizing one’s chances to manage both effectively.
Tips to Cope with Change
The National Alliance on Mental Illness shares tips on what you can do to protect your mental health during this challenging time. Among them are establishing a daily routine, following a mental health treatment plan, and practicing mindfulness and acceptance techniques, which you can find here.