Opioid challenges don’t stop during pandemic

Opioid challenges don't stop during pandemic

While the world struggles with COVID-19, West Virginia and other places continue to deal with another complicated situation — the opioid epidemic. Individuals with substance use disorders (SUD) have health and situational issues that can exacerbate the effects of the coronavirus, and our society’s response to the virus can exacerbate their SUD.

The coronavirus impacts the body’s respiratory and pulmonary systems, which makes it more harmful to individuals with compromised immune systems. There is also greater risk to those who use substances, such as opioids, methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana or tobacco, that impact those systems. Additionally, individuals with SUD are more likely to suffer incarceration or homelessness, circumstances that increase their risk of exposure.

The psychological effects of the coronavirus can also be particularly harsh on those with SUD. Addiction is a disease of separation that slowly cuts individuals off from positive connections. In his TED talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong,” British journalist Johann Hari said the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety; it’s connection. In 30 years of treating individuals with SUD, I have found that individuals who plug themselves into a positive support system have the best outcomes. Sharing with others takes away the need for secrets, just like having people to turn to in times of stress makes that stress a bit easier to deal with.

Social distancing, which is necessary to decrease the spread of the coronavirus, presents a counter-intuitive response in those with SUD. Many who are just entering treatment are now cut off from a major addiction treatment tool — each other. People with SUD, when paired with a positive support system and good treatment models, learn a great deal from each other. They see both positive role models and cautionary tales. Individuals in recovery also begin to reconnect with friends and family, which helps fuel motivation and purpose — the absence of which fueled their previous self-destructive behaviors. To add to the problem, people with SUD are also more likely to have co-occurring mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and a history of trauma, all of which can worsen with isolation.

So what is the answer to this seemingly no-win scenario? In my opinion, the answer can be found in the basics of recovery. Just as a positive support system is common in people in long-term recovery, so too is a purposeful approach to life. People in recovery seldom fall accidentally into that state, and if they do, they rarely stay there with no further effort. So, be purposeful. Places like PROACT are still open and actively seeing people with substance use disorder. Give them a call. They will guide you through whatever process they have in place to get you or your loved one started into treatment. If you aren’t familiar with your local resources, call HELP4WV (844-435-7498). They know all of the SUD resources in the state and can give proper guidance on how to proceed.

If you are an individual already in recovery, either long- or short-term, don’t lose touch with your treatment provider or support system. Do you have a therapist or doctor? Keep your appointments either in person or via telemedicine, depending on your arrangement with them. Don’t fall out of the routine you’ve established. Do you have a sponsor? Call them. Do you like to attend self-help meetings? There are online, virtual meetings to choose from. Find one that interests you. And finally, don’t lose touch with your support system. If you have a computer or a phone, there are a lot of free apps, such as FaceTime, Google Duo, Skype and Zoom, to help you connect face-to-face with others.

Change rarely occurs until people have reason to make it and then, unfortunately, it is generally a reaction rather than a purposeful action. Make it purposeful by living life on purpose.

This opinion-editorial was originally published in The Herald-Dispatch on May 3, 2020.


Michael Haney, LCSW, LICSW

Michael serves as director of the Provider Response Organization for Addiction Care & Treatment (PROACT) and is a licensed clinical social worker with experience in addiction counseling.