The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a rise in substance abuse and addiction, according to a new study.
About one-third of respondents to the study say they know someone who has developed some sort of addiction problem since the pandemic began early this spring.
Of those who developed addiction problems, about two-thirds had previously overcome their addictions.
The effects of the pandemic can be seen during online peer group discussions, said Gena Terlizzi, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — Missouri.
“Individuals are really struggling with the social isolation brought about by necessity because of the nature of the pandemic,” Terlizzi said. “For many individuals who live with a mental health condition, routine is very important.”
The study, conducted by help.org, was done through an online survey platform called Pollfish. Pollfish conducted the survey of 1,000 adult Americans on Dec. 4. Respondents were screened, and each was at least 18 years old.
Help.org supports people dealing with substance abuse and addiction by providing resources and guides and connecting them with treatment programs.
Job insecurity and job loss weigh on U.S. citizens, according to the report. So does the volume of illness and death caused by the pandemic.
The report cites Johns Hopkins University data, which shows more 1.6 million people have died from COVID-19 during the pandemic (more than 305,000 in the United States alone). And it cites the Pew Research Center for June data concerning unemployment.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows the unemployment rate has declined over the past six months and nationally was at 6.7 percent in November. The bureau reported 10.7 million people are unemployed, which remains 4.9 million higher than in February.
About 12 million of 22 million jobs lost at the onset of the pandemic have been regained, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Respondents’ opinions about what caused them or someone they know to develop an addiction problem ranged.
Thirty-six percent said the economy or job loss was responsible, 36 percent said boredom resulting from stay-at-home orders or lack of social interactions, 23 percent said depressing state of the world and news, and 5 percent said none of the above.
Help.org also realized housing and food insecurity provided additional stressors during the pandemic. All these things played a role in the nonprofit deciding to survey Americans, said Jeremy Barnett, a counselor for help.org.
“Help.org decided to conduct the study because we are a site that aims to provide helpful and insightful resources on drug and alcohol addiction to those who need it most. We believed a study that shined light on the issue of increasing drug and alcohol addiction was a result of the coronavirus pandemic fit that aim,” Barnett said.
The study asked respondents if they or someone close to them developed an ongoing drug or alcohol addiction because of the pandemic.
About 32 percent responded they had, while about 65 percent said they had not.
But, of the 65 percent who said they had not, 30 percent responded to a follow-up question to say they were concerned about themselves or someone close to them developing an addiction problem in the future.
Of the original 32 percent who said they or someone they knew had been affected by addiction because of the pandemic, 57 percent said the person they referenced became addicted to or fell back into alcohol addiction. Twelve percent became addicted to prescription drugs; 9 percent, cocaine; 7 percent, heroin; 2 percent, over-the-counter medications (like cough syrup); and 12 percent were not specified, according to the report.
Staff members at help.org did not anticipate any specific outcomes from the survey, Barnett said. They generally thought the pandemic’s effects on Americans might be measurable because of the “unusual and uncomfortable circumstances.”
“We would like to learn more about virtual rehab services and what specifically they are doing to see what they are working and what can be improved,” he wrote.
The report does not offer any recommendations on how to overcome increases in the number of people falling into addiction.
“One of the hardest steps is recognizing there is a problem and seeking help for it,” Barnett said. “If you can get that step accomplished, you are much closer to getting where you want to be.”
The Missouri Department of Mental Health offers a range of information concerning alcohol or drug addictions on its website at dmh.mo.gov/alcohol-drug.
The Division of Behavioral Health is responsible for assuring the availability of substance use prevention, treatment and recovery support services for the state, according to the website. More information is available at 573-751-4942.
NAMI Missouri clients rely on their peer support groups, Terlizzi said. The pandemic forced the organization to move many of its peer support groups online.
Unfortunately, Terlizzi said, sharing information online makes people nervous. So NAMI Missouri has done what it can to make the online experience as comfortable as possible.
On the other hand, she said, through online meetings, NAMI has reached new people.
Some people who could benefit from the groups have bypassed them because of access issues, she said.
“There are areas where people have to drive an hour to reach a support group,” Terlizzi said. “We are reaching people we have never reached before. That is something that we hope will continue beyond the pandemic, when we are able to meet again.”
The pandemic and disruption of routines are simply adding additional stress to what people already experience, she continued.
“We have a warm line — it’s not a hotline,” she said. “It’s not a number you would call if you were in a crisis. It’s something that many people who live with mental illness live with as part of their mental illness program.”
The number is 1-800-374-2138. Because of budget cuts, it is available only 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
People call the line to talk with an individual who is living with mental illness — called a peer support specialist.
If someone is experiencing a mental health issue, especially because of the pandemic, NAMI wants them to know there is hope out there, Terlizzi said.
“We get a lot of people who call who just want to talk through their symptoms with someone who will not judge them,” she said. “They are talking with someone who has lived through a mental illness. They know that recovery is possible.”
Paul Thomlinson, a psychologist with Compass Health who directs the organization’s research, said it doesn’t surprise anyone in the mental health service industry that the pandemic is causing negative effects on mental health.
Thomlinson said one study super-imposes the curve of depression on the curve of COVID-19 infections, and they are nearly identical.
“The higher the infection rate, the more the depression and anxiety,” Thomlinson said. “You can’t say COVID caused (the duplication). It could be the other way around.”
It could be a case in which people get depressed and do things that cause spread of the virus.
He added there is a significant relationship between the spread of the virus and mental health problems — one in five people who survive COVID-19 receive a diagnosis of a mental health problem.
“We know these go with substance use and substance abuse issues,” Thomlinson said.
In March, he added, when the pandemic really began to shut down the country, alcohol sales went up 300 percent.
“We know that people are self-medicating,” he said.
But that is only the beginning of what mental health professionals have seen, he continued.
When you talk about four pillars of recovery for mental health — health, home, purpose and community — all of those have been “incredibly impacted by the pandemic,” he said.
Compass Health Network, a nonprofit health care organization that provides a full continuum of behavioral health services and supports, as well as primary and dental health services, is retooling its substance use treatment programs, he said.
It’s been doing “targeted outreach” — focused on clients who need higher levels of care, and making sure they receive prioritization.
“We’re doing a lot of reassessment — things are changing quickly,” Thomlinson said. “We reassess for ongoing substance use problems.”
The organization is also doing a lot of safety planning with clients, he said.
And the opioid epidemic that was at the forefront of discussion hasn’t gone away, he said.
The organization is monitoring programs associated with the epidemic, and it has retooled its services to deliver them to clients virtually.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Thomlinson said. “We’ve figured out how to do a lot of things we used to do in person. Now, we do them virtually.”
Compass Health relies on law enforcement, hospitals, doctors and schools to remind clients that it is still available — help them stay motivated and re-motivated to seek services.
“It’s so easy in times like this for folks to drift,” Thomlinson said. “We have to keep engaging them constantly.”