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by Jenna Drennen

As our nation continues to grapple with the challenges the COVID-19‭ ‬pandemic presents‭, ‬those struggling with mental illness or addiction face an especially unique and arduous set of obstacles‭. ‬The social isolation decreased access to health care‭, ‬financial‭ ‬stress‭, ‬and political and economic instability characterizing the past year left many people confronting an increase in depression and anxiety‭, ‬and those vulnerable to substance use disorders at greater risk of relapse and death‭. ‬As more data emerges addressing the toll the pandemic has taken on the collective mental health of our nation‭, ‬it is clear that the established COVID-19‭ ‬death toll may‭, ‬in fact‭, ‬be much higher‭, ‬with so-called‭ ‬“deaths of despair”‭ ‬increasing over the past year‭. ‬The mortality rate attributed to suicide‭, ‬alcohol-related deaths‭, ‬and drug overdoses sheds some‭ ‬light on the growing mental health and substance abuse crisis gripping our nation and the profound impact the COVID-19‭ ‬pandemic‭ ‬continues to make in fueling this crisis‭. ‬Last month the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a recent survey‭ ‬indicated that one in four adults had considered suicide during the previous thirty days‭. ‬Compounding this statistic‭, ‬the CDC affirmed the pandemic might be responsible for the substantial rise in deadly drug overdoses associated with the past year‭. ‬While‭ ‬drug overdoses and suicide attempts appear to be occurring more frequently across the country in recent months‭, ‬they are also more likely to result in death‭. ‬Given the increased isolation necessary to combat the pandemic‭, ‬a person who accidentally overdoses is more inclined to be alone‭, ‬making it unlikely help will be called or life-saving medication‭ (‬such as Narcan‭) ‬administered‭.‬

For those struggling with substance use disorders or navigating early sobriety‭, ‬the ongoing pandemic creates unprecedented challenges and often insurmountable barriers to treatment‭. ‬It is acknowledged that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety‭, ‬but rather human connection‭. ‬Much like other mental health disorders‭, ‬addiction is‭, ‬above all else‭, ‬a disease of isolation‭. ‬By definition‭, ‬substance use disorders favor the relationship between an individual and a substance over any relationship with another human being‭. ‬As a substance increasingly becomes the focus of an addict’s life‭, ‬important relationships dissolve‭, ‬and social isolation results‭. ‬Addiction requires this isolation to thrive‭, ‬and for an‭ ‬already vulnerable population of addicts‭, ‬the necessary social isolation the pandemic demanded also served to fuel their disorder‭. ‬

For those struggling with substance use disorders‭, ‬staying sober can be a daily challenge‭, ‬even under the best circumstances‭. ‬For many addicts‭, ‬the cornerstone of their recovery process centers on a structured routine based on readily accessible support systems within the community‭. ‬Group therapy is considered one of the most effective‭, ‬evidence-based approaches to treating addiction‭. ‬In-person‭, ‬12-step support groups such as AA and NA are often essential structural components of a recovering addict’s routine‭. ‬Research shows 12-step programs lead to longer stretches of abstinence compared to other types of treatment programs‭.‬‭ ‬While the mass closures of neighborhood establishments such as churches and schools proved essential in slowing the spread of COVID‭, ‬the 12-step community that depended on these institutions to meet regularly were left scrambling and vulnerable‭. ‬The shift‭ ‬to a virtual format allowed many recovering addicts to maintain their support network and routine‭. ‬Still‭, ‬it failed to meet the‭ ‬needs of a substantial population that was new to recovery and required a level of care and connection that virtual meetings couldn’t offer‭. ‬The increased stress‭, ‬financial hardship‭, ‬disruption of routine‭, ‬and loneliness the pandemic fueled also served as triggers for those struggling with sobriety‭. ‬These triggers become dangerous when used to justify using or drinking‭. ‬For people battling substance use disorders‭, ‬and especially those new to sobriety‭, ‬the recovery process is not always linear‭. ‬Relapse is common‭ ‬and can be a part of the recovery process‭, ‬but relapse has the potential to be deadly‭, ‬with the risk increasing amidst our COVID era socially distant and profoundly isolated environments‭.‬

For those battling mental illness‭, ‬the pandemic proved to be equally problematic‭. ‬Apart from the stresses last year presented‭, ‬individuals vulnerable to depression and anxiety were forced to contend with one of their biggest fears‭: ‬uncertainty‭. ‬When predisposed to anxiety‭, ‬the fear associated with uncertainty frequently leads to a flood of panic and catastrophic thought patterns‭. ‬Integrated with the stresses and isolation the pandemic propagated‭, ‬these thought patterns have the potential to spiral and fuel‭ ‬depressive episodes‭. ‬A recent survey conducted by the CDC estimates that one in three adults show signs of depression and anxiety directly linked to the COVID-19‭ ‬pandemic‭. ‬A significant lack of mental health and financial resources‭, ‬coupled with decreased‭ ‬social and emotional support‭, ‬exacerbates this collective psychological distress nationwide‭. ‬

As mental healthcare shifts to a predominantly virtual format‭, ‬significant limitations to access and quality of care remain‭. ‬Concerns surrounding privacy‭, ‬technological constraints‭, ‬appropriate crisis intervention‭, ‬and the ability to establish intimacy and‭ ‬trust via a digital format can be strong deterrents‭. ‬Because digital lacks the intricacy of real-world interaction‭, ‬warning signs can be overlooked‭, ‬signaling a more serious psychiatric episode requiring close and direct treatment or in-person intervention‭. ‬With access to appropriate mental health resources remaining limited‭, ‬risk of suicidal ideation and self-harm inevitably increases‭.‬

As we continue to navigate the‭ ‬“new normal”‭ ‬the COVID-19‭ ‬pandemic ushered in‭, ‬a valuable opportunity arises to assess and redefine what we want that‭ ‬“new normal”‭ ‬to look like going forward‭. ‬The challenges this pandemic presented also illuminated a mental health and substance abuse epidemic that far predates the virus‭. ‬Highlighting the inequities and disparities plaguing mental health and addiction treatment nationwide‭, ‬the COVID era offers our communities an opportunity to reexamine and improve existing mental health services and more fully address the epidemic of mental health challenges facing our nation‭. ‬It is clear we need a concerted effort to make mental health a priority while battling the stigma that mental healthcare and addiction treatment continue to carry‭. ‬More proactive outreach needs to be taken to reach those struggling with mental health issues and substance use disorders‭. ‬Early intervention remains‭ ‬critical and essential to lessening the pandemic’s impact on the collective mental health of vulnerable populations‭. ‬When addressing substance abuse and mental health challenges‭, ‬research indicates that early intervention allows for a less complicated treatment path‭, ‬a lower level of care‭, ‬and an increase in positive long-term outcomes‭. ‬Ensuring vulnerable individuals have the opportunity to establish a relationship with a therapist or community support network better equips them with a set of coping strategies to prevent or recognize a potentially deadly‭ ‬impending mental health crisis or relapse‭. ‬These early interventions cannot regularly occur until the disparity between necessity and access is more fully addressed and mental healthcare resources are more equitably brokered on a systemic level‭.‬

If someone you know struggles with a substance use disorder or mental health issue‭, ‬listen to them and continue to reach out often‭. ‬Think twice about posting jokes or memes on social media referencing‭ ‬“needing”‭ ‬alcohol‭. ‬This humor may seem benign to someone who does not grapple with addiction or mental illness‭, ‬but the normalization and‭ ‬glamorization of excessive alcohol consumption in response to adversity can be a dangerous trigger for those struggling with sobriety and/or depression‭. ‬In identifying and embracing how we can support one another‭, ‬we effectively transcend the isolation and loneliness so many of us face and foster hope for a brighter tomorrow‭.‬

“A sad soul can kill you quicker‭, ‬far quicker‭, ‬than a germ‭.‬”‭-‬John Steinbeck

If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use disorder‭, ‬contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s‭ (‬SAMHSA‭) ‬national helpline at 1-800-662-HELP‭. ‬This service is available 24/7‭, ‬365‭ ‬days a year‭, ‬and offers free and confidential treatment and referral services for individuals and families facing mental health and substance use disorders‭.‬

Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband‭, ‬two kids‭, ‬and a house full of animals‭. ‬She enjoys‭, ‬running‭, ‬gardening‭, ‬and climbing mountains in her spare time‭.‬