On its own, addiction can feel isolating. When coupled with “stay-at-home” mandates put in place to help quell the spread of COVID-19, living with addiction becomes even more challenging. Health professionals must evolve with mandated changes in order to better help the more than 21 million Americans living with a substance use disorder (SUD).
Yet, that number isn’t even close to the entire story when it comes to addiction treatment. Of those who have an SUD, only about 1.4 percent of those aged 12 or older receive treatment during any given year. That glaring treatment disparity stems from a number of factors including access to economic, medical, and social support. The biggest hurdle to comprehensive addiction treatment isn’t lack of insurance or clinic inaccessibility. Ultimately, a struggling addict must want to recover and be ready to do what it takes to achieve their goals.
As addiction varies significantly among individuals, addiction treatment can look very different depending on the person and their preferred substances. SUD treatment can occur in inpatient or outpatient settings. Sometimes, more clinical support is needed, especially among opioid addicts and those dependent on alcohol. In most cases, support groups are crucial to the recovery process, and the sudden onslaught of COVID-19 has completely upended the support system for recovering addicts across the world.
What We’re Up Against
Even if you know firsthand what it’s like to work at an addiction treatment center, COVID-19 has changed everything. Now, health care professionals must work to provide holistic care in what amounts to a vacuum, but addiction treatment involves every aspect of patient care, from mind to body and beyond, and human interaction is a cornerstone of recovery.
Depending on an addict’s substance(s) of choice and the severity of his or her condition, addiction treatment can include a variety of factors. In the wake of COVID-19 and widespread social isolation mandates, treatment may be even more crucial to those vulnerable to relapse. Accessing treatment facilities and medications may inadvertently put many addicts at risk, especially opioid users who may require access to methadone as part of their treatment plan.
Isolation itself can even be a relapse trigger, making social isolation mandates a real threat to recovering addicts. It’s important to note that triggers among opioid users may be similar to those of alcoholics. These triggers include isolation, stress, and anxiety. Furthermore, both opioid addicts and alcoholics may face dangerous withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit on their own. Without addiction treatment clinics as an option, opioid addicts and alcoholics may fall through the cracks, unable to break free from their addiction. Telemedicine may offer a solution, even in the face of a global pandemic.
Embracing Telehealth in the Wake of Disaster
Telemedicine isn’t new in the realm of addiction treatment, but its use has surged in popularity during the first few months of 2020. Using telemedicine, patients can access care and various clinical services via telephone or video chat. For many recovering addicts and those with co-occurring disorders who are practicing social isolation, telemedicine is a vital aspect of the healing process.
Even without the threat of a pandemic, telemedicine is beneficial to patients from all walks of life, especially for those in rural areas with limited transportation options. The elderly and infirm may also find benefit in telemedicine, which is just as viable as traditional care. In fact, a 2019 survey found that 61% of patients believe they received the same quality of care via telemedicine as with traditional in-person visits. Telemedicine combines quality care with human interaction, benefiting addicts in all stages of recovery.
Especially for those in early recovery, support from one’s peers and treatment providers is integral to the process; however, social distancing has eliminated that lifeline virtually overnight. Telemedicine is poised to bridge the gaps. Early recovery is defined as an addict’s first year of recovery, and it’s considered a crucial time for those looking to change their life for the better. During this time, addicts are learning how to cope with their emotions in a healthy manner while also avoiding relapse triggers and behaviors.
Adaptation and Perseverance Against Addiction
While deaths and illnesses related to COVID-19 are headline news among the general population, health care providers in the realm of substance abuse have additional concerns. Scrambling for solutions, addiction treatment providers worry that social isolation will result in increased relapses and overdoses.
Recovery clinics are urging addiction treatment providers to perform regular wellness checks via remote channels and telemedicine. Health care providers can also encourage their patients to attend virtual support groups and 12-step meetings. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, is utilizing various meeting apps such as Zoom to facilitate online meetings for those in recovery, and all addicts are welcome to participate.
Fighting opioid addiction and other forms of substance abuse can be an uphill battle, and social distancing mandates are further compounding the issue. It’s essential that health care providers don’t overlook their vulnerable patients with SUDs. Those who are in recovery often rely on group support and find social isolation to be a relapse trigger, so it’s imperative that treatment clinics and providers offer alternatives so their patients feel supported in these trying times.