Social support systems are important for everyone, but have an especially critical place in the lives of those struggling with substance abuse. CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta explores the impact of the pandemic on people dealing with addiction.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app, or read the transcript below.
Dr. Gupta: The coronavirus has forced most of us to live very different lives, and adapting to this new life hasn’t been easy for everyone. Living in isolation can be especially challenging.
Maybe you have young, restless kids. Maybe you’re taking care of someone who’s sick. Or maybe you struggle with substance abuse and are now cut off from your support system.
Mental health professionals have told us that this pandemic could pose a serious threat to people who rely on social contact for treatment.
Today we’ll talk about the risks facing those who are struggling with addiction and also what resources are available to help them.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
Dr. Gupta: After weeks of isolating ourselves to stop the spread of coronavirus, many of us still haven’t been able to settle into a new routine.
I know I’ve had a hard time with it myself.
That kind of disruption can take a toll, especially for those who are in the process of trying to make a change in their lives – like getting sober.
Anthony B.: When I was first getting sober, that was instilled in me. And I had a regimen at certain meetings that I went to. I called my sponsor on a daily basis. And once that routine was set, it really helped it become second nature so that it didn’t become a chore.
Dr. Gupta: That’s Anthony B. We agreed not to use his last name to protect his privacy. Anthony is an alcoholic who has been in recovery for seven years.
When he was in the throes of addiction, most of his substance abuse took place at home, alone.
Anthony B.: I know for me, I didn’t need to be in a club or in a bar or anything like that. I could just be in my house and stop off at the liquor store and go in the house.
Dr. Gupta: With so many people isolating during this pandemic, on their own, Anthony worries those who struggle with substance abuse are especially vulnerable.
Anthony B.: So imagine someone who has just recently gotten sober and has been going to meetings and then all the sudden now they’re just in the house. The place where everything happened. You’re walking around and I’m looking, ‘Oh, that’s where I used to put a bottle or, oh, look at the glasses.’
Dr. Gupta: Anthony is no longer able to attend his regular Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in person. So he’s joined the meetings online, over Zoom.
Anthony B.: The interesting part about it for me was having people check in from Australia, the UK, Louisiana, North Dakota, Virginia. I mean, it was all over. And so instantly for me, I felt connected like, OK, this is how we’re going to do it. This is what we’re gonna do to get us through this period.
Dr. Gupta: But here’s the thing, connecting online may not be enough for everyone. Dr. Nora Volkow is the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. Pretty early on, Dr. Volkow became concerned about how the pandemic would impact those struggling with substance abuse.
Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institutes of Health: I started to worry in February. But it wasn’t really until March that I started to recognize how devastating this could be to individuals that have problems with substance abuse.
Dr. Gupta: As Covid-19 patients fill hospitals all over the country, Dr. Volkow says it is imperative that health care workers prevent this stigma surrounding addiction from influencing how they administer care.
Dr. Volkow: They are discriminated on the basis that they believe that people do this to themselves. And therefore, you have to owe it, the consequences, to your own choices. And in fact, this is something that patients will tell you that have a problem with drugs and why they don’t like to go see a doctor or go to the hospital because they are mistreated.
Addiction is one of the most stigmatized, if not the most stigmatized disease.
Dr. Gupta: Fortunately, she says, there have already been some changes to the way care is provided for those with substance use disorders.
Dr. Volkow: Telehealth has exploded and it has been incorporated into everyday practice so rapidly.
Dr. Gupta: Dr. Volkow adds that treatment for drug addiction, however, has been especially challenging.
Dr. Volkow: Many of the methadone clinics are closing. Their doors are limiting the number of patients that can go in.
Dr. Gupta: Normally, methadone can only be prescribed after an in-person evaluation, and must be taken in the clinic. But now some methadone clinics are making it easier to get multiple doses of the medication, and to be able to take it at home.
Dr. Volkow: So these changes give us a different perspective of how we may be able to treat people that are addicted to drugs while also forcing us to see the issues that we need to solve and address.
Dr. Gupta: It’s not just illicit substances that pose a threat during this pandemic, but legal ones as well. Because Covid-19 impacts the lungs, the Food and Drug Administration has advised that those who smoke cigarettes may be at increased risk and have worse outcomes from the virus.
And while there isn’t any data showing how the pandemic has impacted rates of alcohol use disorder, people do appear to be buying a lot of alcohol. According to Nielsen, sales of alcoholic beverages increased 55% in the last week of march compared to the same time last year.
That may be partly as a result of liquor stores being deemed essential businesses in most states. And while there has been some criticism of that designation, Dr. Volkow points out that having access to alcohol could in some situations be safer for alcoholics.
Dr. Volkow: If you are addicted to alcohol and you don’t have access to alcohol and you go through withdrawal, that’s extremely severe and you can literally die from alcohol withdrawal.
Dr. Gupta: But Anthony B. – who has been in recovery for seven years – worries about the temptation for people who are still struggling.
Anthony B.: My first instinct was like, damn, that sucks, you know? There’s definitely some people out there that are suffering, and I feel for them when I see liquor stores open. I hope they realize that that’s not an essential. But I don’t know that that’s going to happen.
Dr. Gupta: The World Health Organization recently issued a statement saying excessive drinking can weaken the immune system and they recommended limiting access to alcohol during this pandemic.
Of course, it’s one thing to discourage people from excessive substance use during this uncertain time, and another to make sure they have the support they need to do so.
Anthony has a simple suggestion for anyone who’s currently having a hard time: pick up the phone.
Anthony B.: If people aren’t, you know, really into the whole technology thing, just call people. It makes such a difference. And what’s, what’s interesting is that if I call someone, it helps them more than it helps me. Like I’m calling because I want to stay sober, but they’ll say thank you for calling me because I was going through X, Y and Z and then they might call somebody else.
Dr. Gupta: Dealing with addiction is enormously difficult under any circumstance and we don’t want to minimize this at all. Dealing with it during a pandemic adds a whole new set of challenges.
If you’re in need of resources or support, the substance abuse and mental health services administration operates a helpline 24/7. The number is 1-800-662-4357. There’s help out there.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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For a full listing of episodes of “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction,” visit the podcast’s page here.