While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected people around the world, it is having a profound impact on those dealing with drug addiction. Experts have repeatedly reported an addiction pattern that increases with natural disasters and pandemics. Do COVID measures like social isolation do more harm than good to addicts?
Short periods of isolation have a negative effect on psychological well-being. They can lead to anxiety, depression, and insomnia. People with pre-existing mental illness have found that their mental symptoms worsen during isolation. Some are turning to illegal substance use to deal with it. Those who are already abusing substances have become increasingly dependent on them. Some people struggle with both mental illness and substance addiction, which makes isolation even more difficult.
Jeffery Wardell, clinical psychologist and professor at York University and a former researcher at the Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) explains:
“The pandemic is very stressful for people, especially certain people such as children or those dealing with depression and other mental health problems, and some people may be at risk of turning to alcohol (or other drugs) as a strategy to deal with this need to become. “
For some, using substances is a way to feel in control of one’s life. Dylan (name changed for anonymity), a Toronto resident dealing with addiction, shares, “You just want to feel something. What else is there to do if you are trapped at home because you lost your job? You feel bored and hopeless so long for that cocaine high. You reach for it and forget everything for a while. “
COVID-19 has also exacerbated the opioid crisis, with opioid-related deaths rising by 38.2% in the first few weeks of the Ontario pandemic. One study identified a trend in opioid-related deaths, which are more common in those who use drugs alone, are outdoors, or stay in motels during the pandemic. Physical distancing measures, essential to limit the spread of COVID-19, may have inadvertently restricted access to safe rooms for drug use. This study also found that opioid-related deaths are more common in immigrant and racial communities, suggesting that pandemic responses disproportionately affect these populations.
Additionally, conflicting messages have made it even harder for people to deal with their addictions. Prior to the pandemic, individuals were warned to use substances in the company of others as a harm reduction strategy to minimize the risk of overdose and contaminated supplies. Since the pandemic started, there have been conflicting statements from health officials about this strategy to stop the spread of COVID-19.
While many use substances as a coping mechanism, it often fails. People who are stressed or anxious may turn to drugs or alcohol to numb their emotions and escape their reality. However, this relief is only temporary and substances can increase anxiety and fear in the long term.
It is important for people to develop healthy coping strategies that will enable them to face life’s challenges, even major problems like a global pandemic. If people with a history of substance abuse feel they are unable to deal with it, they are more likely to relapse. Drug users are currently doubly at risk, both due to a higher likelihood of relapse and increased drug use, and due to a higher risk of COVID infection and the serious health consequences resulting from it.
Support groups and 12-step meetings can help individuals develop different coping strategies instead of turning to substances. However, one consequence of social distancing is that healthcare, social services, and drug supply chains are affected. Rehabilitation centers have gone online and the number of people excluded from rehab services has increased. Many are either unfamiliar with the technology or have no access to a computer or the Internet. The number of canceled services is of particular concern. Outreach services, walk-in support services, extraction services, consumption points and emergency shelters have been closed or canceled as a precautionary measure by health officials to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Julia, who has recovered from drug addiction, explains, “My support group is not of much help now. We still hold our weekly meetings virtually, but half of the group don’t show up because some have lost their jobs and can’t afford to pay the internet. They just ran out of those resources and hit the streets again. Others don’t show up because they have relapsed since the pandemic and left the support group. “
How can individuals deal with disruptions in these programs and what can be done to support them? Wardell provides his contribution:
“As a community, we need to make people aware of the potential harms of alcohol or drug use to coping with stress, and educating them about alternative coping strategies, increasing community support, and improving access to treatment for alcohol and other substance problems”.
– Fatmah Jahim, contributing writer
Feature: Mikail Duran at Unsplash, Creative Commons
First, Jon Tyson at Unsplash, Creative Commons
Second: Anton Khomutenko on Flickr, Creative Commons