The national emergency caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 is putting stress on every aspect of our nation’s health care delivery system, whether it’s shortages of critical medical supplies, lack of beds for patients or the health risks facing doctors, nurses and other hospital staff.
But our collective efforts to slow the spread of the virus are creating a whole set of new challenges for many in our community who were already struggling; social distancing and self-isolation are truly taking a toll on the mental health of those battling with or recovering from addiction.
Governors and public health experts are defining mental health as an essential public service during the crisis. They deserve credit for their efforts to encourage more public conversations and highlighting the support and resources available to those in need. Nevertheless, studies are beginning to show that many segments of society are struggling with mental health right now and these stresses and challenges will likely become more acute in the weeks and months ahead.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found that one in four adults reported experiencing high levels of distress during a week-long period in late March. Young people and those dealing with financial pressures reported even higher levels of distress, the survey found.
These pressures can be even more daunting for those recovering from substance abuse. Consider also that members of the recovery community must now adjust to maintaining sobriety in isolation, untethered to group therapy, personal connections and in-person support networks that are fundamental to lasting recovery.
In Idaho, the Pacific Northwest and across the country, mental health care providers have suspended in-person support groups, in some cases moving therapy sessions online. Inpatient treatment facilities are now limiting family visits and some treatment facilities have simply shut down.
We know that individuals in recovery are at a higher risk to relapse during and following a period of crisis or natural disaster, and the coronavirus outbreak is creating similarly disruptive, isolating and stressful circumstances.
For many recovering from substance abuse, isolation and a profound sense of loneliness are the very reason many addicts sought refuge in alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medication. Research also tells us those recovering from substance abuse are at a high risk of suicide during and after a crisis.
Resources are available. Like many treatment facilities, our staff is taking additional steps daily to protect and support patients and staff. In-patient recovery programs continue to operate, both for adults and young people in need of detox and participation in residential-style treatment.
Steps are being taken now to add services and portals to care through our telehealth program. Programming is now available through Tricare, the health program for uniformed service members, retirees and their families around the world. As part of this, the staff is getting ready to launch our Combatant Care and Recovery program.
In times like these, when our daily lives are defined by isolation and creating physical space between one another, it’s important to bear in mind those whose struggles with separation can be more profound.
It’s why we encourage family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to try harder, to take extra steps, to reach out to those recovering from substance abuse. Keeping a safe physical distance from one another doesn’t mean we can’t provide the support, connections and sense of community to those who need it most right now.
John Flanagan is the CEO of Northpoint Recovery, which provides a safe, therapeutic environment, where those struggling with addiction can build a foundation for recovery.