How can the addiction treatment community continue to assist people who are now being left even more isolated and desperate?
Addiction – a chronic relapsing brain disorder, and a disease that gets deeply personal. It gets low-down and dirty, too.
If you’re not an addict yourself, you surely know someone who is.
You know someone abusing their opioid prescriptions, not because it’s a barrier to their pain, but because it’s a potent way to make them feel happier. You know someone whose alcohol consumption is dangerously high and verging on alcoholic – if they’re not already there, of course. Your kids will certainly know someone who abuses recreational drugs like they were going out of fashion. They’ll also know other students who swallow ADHD prescription tablets (as a study aid) because it makes them get their grades, and keeps their parents, people like you, happy.
Among the people who are in your extended family, among your circle of friends, or someone within your workplace – at the very least, one, probably several more, will be a secret drug addict or an alcoholic. At the very least.
It doesn’t discriminate. It certainly doesn’t care where you live either, just like most other diseases, and now this new coronavirus – COVID-19.
Arizona & The Opioid Crisis
Over the last 3 years, in Arizona alone, there have been more than 5,000 opioid-related deaths. Add to that the 40,000-plus opioid overdoses that have taken place during the same period, and you realize that COVID-19 has never been the only serious health issue the state continues to face, or the rest of the U.S., for that matter.
In our “new reality” of social distancing and masks, more than 2 people every single day die from an opioid overdose in Arizona. Nearly half of those are aged 25-44 years old – in their prime, you might say.
Opioids are not the only addictive group of substances that is costing young Arizonan lives right now either.
From the abuse of “study aid” drugs, like Adderall and other ADHD medications, to the “party drugs,” like cocaine and ecstacy, and so to opioid prescription meds, and, if circumstances allow, a slow and deadly progression to heroin – addiction is damaging lives, if not ending them way too soon.
These drugs did so before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, and they’ll continue to do so after, or even if the world ultimately finds another drug – the elusive coronavirus vaccine – it is hoping for.
Opioids + COVID-19 = The Perfect Storm
We now live in this time of coronavirus. With the ongoing opioid epidemic, the question arises:
How can the addiction treatment community continue to assist people who are now being left even more isolated and desperate, still with their chronic desire to get as high as they can, or drunker than yesterday?
Furthermore, coronavirus has raised questions itself about the ongoing mental health needs of our population as a whole, and drug addicts and alcoholics continue to feature heavily in any statistics you offer up about those in the U.S. living with a mental health disorder.
In fact, around half of those with a substance use disorder (SUD) or an alcohol use disorder (AUD) – the medical terminology for addiction – are simultaneously living with their own mental health disorder, such as major depression, severe anxiety or even a trauma-related disorder like PTSD.
How are these predominantly socially-disadvantaged people able to receive the treatment they really need when they have been directed to isolate and socially distance themselves even further?
This is why I believe the conditions for a “perfect storm” of widespread deteriorating mental health and self-medication through continued substance abuse are here now, with overdoses and fatalities rising across the addiction spectrum.
There will be many drug or alcohol abusers living in Arizona who will be lost to us, and the majority will be young people in the age group of 25-44 mentioned previously, left isolated and unnoticed by an over-occupied medical community.
The U.S. opioid epidemic plus the global coronavirus pandemic.
A deceitfully isolating disorder in a time of generalized social isolation. For some, there will be no safe harbor from this, and it will wash them away from the lives of their families and friends without any chance of rescue whatsoever. The perfect storm – our perfect storm.
Today, the truth is that successful addiction recovery has become exponentially more difficult. Apart from ongoing isolation to contend with, there exists an unfounded but very real distrust of medical facilities per se, and a real personal problem in maintaining good physical and mental health practices, eg. through nutrition and physical activity.
Innovation: The Ideal Recovery Answer for Isolated Substance Addicts?
Digital technology has advanced far further than its creators and financial promoters ever envisaged – or has it? We have become a society where it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you’re always close by to loved ones you wish to talk to, friends you want to have a laugh with, and colleagues you need to share information with.
Communication anywhere with anyone is as simple as the proverbial ABC.
However, if you think that innovation and digital technology – sitting in front of your laptop or tablet, in other words – can provide the answers to the questions raised earlier about the timely provision of professional addiction or mental health treatment to those that need it, then you’re wrong. If only it were all that simple and straightforward.
Online meetings of 12-Step organizations, like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and others, have been available for many years. However, all of these support organizations realize that an online or virtual 12-Step meeting is not the real thing. They are a temporary substitute and no more.
In fact, they are a poor substitute when compared to the face-to-face and hands-on meetings that continue to be held successfully all over the nation and all year round.
The various “sober aware” and “sober curious” communities that are present online do not provide a realistic treatment option to any substance addicts whatsoever, whether their SUD or AUD has been clinically diagnosed or not. Furthermore, the current crop of online addiction treatment and recovery programs available are currently statistically unproven in terms of successful outcomes, and with no official accreditation.
That said, there is limited evidence that “telemental health care” does have several benefits in terms of more timely interventions in those with mental illness generally, particularly when these people are located in isolated communities.
I honestly wouldn’t know, as there is no official patient outcome data for these services. In fact, by the time that data is able to be impartially and officially collected, these groups and so-called programs may have already lost their internet presence.
Online “help” (you honestly couldn’t call it an actual treatment) with addiction is severely limited and nowhere near approaching the answer. Here’s exactly why…
Substance addiction is an utterly isolating disorder. It can obliterate close family bonds, destroy what keeps us close together as friends, and will happily rampage unabated through any social life you may still hold onto, accepting no prisoners. Bleak isolation like you’ve never known before.
Corona has little on addiction.
Addiction is the catalyst behind premature death, the end of families and their marriages, long-term unemployment, and endless legal issues. It costs financially too – countless billions of dollars every year are lost to this disorder, over double that of any other neurological disease.
Let me be absolutely clear and concise – there exists no replacement whatsoever for your hand held by another when lying in an intensive care bed, scared you’ll become just another coronavirus statistic, and there exists no replacement for the smiles, warmth, and openness of fellow recovering drug addicts meeting in a daily support group, especially on those days when you came so close, so very close, to using or drinking again.
There’s little difference between the two either.
The online addiction treatment industry is still in its childhood. It truly is an industry too, as you’ll only buy the brand and the product; you’ll never actually meet those telling you how to best change your life.
At present, it falls woefully short.
Really, what would you prefer? A mask-wearing addiction professional, clinically qualified to assist with your detox, your medication if needed, and your psychological needs, located in an accredited treatment facility (formally certified as being coronavirus-free), among peers, fellow addicts, and trained medical staff?
Or a video image on a computer screen of someone you will never meet, who is telling you to do things you’ve never done before? At least, successfully?
As society moves towards a more home-orientated existence, with WFH (working from home) the new norm, consider this:
Would a specialized medical professional treating your disease ask you to consider “getting better from home,” as an alternative to the hospital?
All we can hope for – the best that we can hope for – is that coronavirus soon leaves the state lines of Arizona, and that can continue all of our recoveries as successfully as before. Until then, the advice is simple – take the best help you can from wherever you can get it. Sadly, you are yet to find it on a computer screen.
One last thought before I sign off…
Protective masks may well become standard attire in our unknown future. So why, oh why, can they not make these transparent? Just take a moment… We’d be able to see each other – our friends, our colleagues, even complete strangers in the street – smile again.