COVID coping hits addicts hard

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: addiction.

Mental health and substance abuse often go hand in hand. And the same pandemic factors that have caused a spike in mental health issues have also affected people struggling with addiction and drug use. 

WORLD’s Anna Johansen Brown reports now on what could be a long road to recovery.

BARNES: Meth addicts don’t normally die of an overdose, but he actually got laced meth with carbo fentanyl.

ANNA JOHANSEN BROWN: Ron Barnes volunteers with a Christian mens’ rehabilitation program in Georgia. This spring, a young man in the program overdosed.

Barnes had mentored him for two years—regular meetings and accountability, but also fellowship and dinners out.

BARNES: He was doing really well. And then when COVID hit, his dad got put into critical care and passed away. And they do believe that was from COVID. 

Losing his dad undid years of progress in rehab.

BARNES: He struggled staying clean, but would fall back into meth. He would use pot and alcohol to try to get off the meth. It was like the tailspin that he just couldn’t get out of.

A month later, he was gone.

BARNES: He had never used narcotics. He was very opiate naive. And so he injected the meth, and it had the carbo fentanyl in it, he passed away.

For this young man, COVID-19 was the perfect storm. And it’s the perfect storm for millions of others across the United States also struggling with addiction. The fight was already brutal. But the pandemic created a host of extra challenges. Jeff Beeson is the deputy director for an anti-drug trafficking program in the Washington DC area.

BEESON: We certainly think that lockdown had a dramatic impact on folks who are using.

Beeson also oversees a national database that tracks overdose deaths. In March, the number of overdose deaths jumped by 20 percent compared to March 2019. In April, it was a 33 percent increase. In May, 48 percent. Beeson says several factors contributed to that rise.

BEESON: What we have seen, and I think, you know, this sort of speaks to the just to the vicious and malicious nature of drug traffickers, is post-COVID opportunistic drug distribution. So we are seeing an increase in the availability of narcotics on the street. 

Addicts often use drugs in a group. But once shelter-in-place mandates hit, they were home, often alone. If someone overdoses by themselves, no one is there to call 911, or administer Narcan, the overdose reversal medication.

Beeson says more people are also experimenting with poly-drug use: Combining different kinds of drugs. 

BEESON: In other words, we’re seeing signs where fentanyl is present in a mixture of a stimulant, which didn’t happen before. So what that means is, if you traditionally have a methamphetamine user they’re ill prepared to support themselves if they are overdosing to something like fentanyl. 

Elinore McCance-Katz leads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration–SAMHSA.

MCCANCE-KATZ: I’m an addiction psychiatrist, so I actually didn’t need to know much more than that we were being hit by a very severe infectious disease to know what was going to happen.

Health officials focused on protecting people from the new virus, not on existing health crises.

MCCANCE-KATZ: One of the real concerns that I have about the response that government officials have made to the pandemic is to not consider all of a person’s health needs in favor of only thinking about the virus and infection rates.

Alcohol sales shot through the roof as people hunkered down at home. Half of the treatment centers that work with SAMHSA had to lay off staff, while a third had to turn away clients because they couldn’t provide treatment and stay within COVID-19 protocols. A million and a half Americans get medication-assisted treatment for addiction. But with everything shut down, people didn’t always have access to their medication. McCance-Katz was especially worried about that, because two of those treatments are a type of opioid.

MCCANCE-KATZ: And if someone were, were not to be able to access those medications, it would go into opioid withdrawal. And that would put them at risk for using illicit substances and potentially overdose and death.

SAMHSA changed its policies to allow people to take home more medication at a time. It also implemented telehealth counseling sessions. But those aren’t the same as in-person interactions.

MCCANCE-KATZ: When we hear stay at home and it’s safer at home, it’s not. It’s not, for many Americans. For many of them, it is the height of isolation and a very big trigger for relapse. 

Ron Barnes saw that firsthand at the ministry where he volunteers. He used to take the guys out to dinner, see them three or four times a week. But for almost two months this spring, he wasn’t allowed on the campus to see any of the residents he mentored. 

BARNES: Isolation is never good for the recovering addict. Because they need positive interactions and healthy activities. And when they’re in isolation, they can hide too many things for too long.

The ministry had back-to-back overdoses…two men within three months. Those deaths took a toll on the other men in the program.

BARNES: The ripple effect for other recovering folks is, it can happen to me. And so there was a lot of concern about, Am I doing the right thing? Am I, am I gonna lose my battle anyways? 

It also shook Barnes, as a volunteer. 

BARNES: Yeah, I–[chokes up, long sigh] Sorry. Um, God clearly said that, he still wanted me to serve there. So um, after taking some time, I am now back there serving, volunteering, loving on the guys.

He says walking through this has given him more empathy for the men in the program and their families. He understands the wear and tear, the anguish, the struggle, but he also has a better appreciation for the joy, when someone makes it out of their addiction.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Anna Johansen Brown.


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