Those Suffering From an Addiction Need Help Now More Than Ever

Those Suffering From an Addiction Need Help Now More Than Ever

Over 23 million Americans suffer from a substance use disorder (SUD). Out of that number, on average about 10% access treatment. There are many factors that contribute to that low percentage, such as access to resources and support.  Oftentimes, many people who have an SUD utilize emergency departments for addiction treatment. In the current climate, that will pose a significant barrier to care.

Those of us who work in the behavioral health field are seeing the implications that COVID-19 has on the populations we serve. There are multiple areas that are notably impacted when working with individuals who suffer from the disease of addiction. These individuals, who are already underserved and stigmatized, will face additional barriers to treatment for COVID-19.

For years, research has shown that the substance using population has limited access to adequate healthcare resources, higher instances of incarceration, and also higher rates of homelessness. How do you wash your hands if you don’t have access to soap and water? How do you quarantine or isolate if you don’t have a home?

During the COVID-19 crisis, many health care systems will be pushed to capacity and will be prioritizing patients based on severity, risk, and need. The substance using population that often times presents at local hospital systems and urgent care facilities may not be addressed with the same level of urgency. When presenting with withdrawal systems or other addiction related complications during this time period, they will likely face longer wait times, and additional barriers due to the strain on the healthcare systems.

Because COVID-19 is a respiratory disorder, it creates a higher risk for those who smoke and vape. Individuals who use opiates are already at higher risk for increased pulmonary and respiratory challenges. The use of opiates leads to decreased respiratory function, and decreases oxygen in the blood. Couple this with COVID-19, a virus that does the same, and the risk of fatal overdose increases.

Harm Reduction and OTP services also face challenges in this crisis. With the current restrictions, and the ones surely to come, we need to take a serious look at local public health services and programming, such as overdose prevention programming, as we are sure to see a spike in overdose rates, syringe exchange programs, and prevention programs. These programs offer referrals, case management, health care navigation, food and childcare referrals and many other necessary services. Through this crisis, our substance using population will still need access to these services.

The Social Distancing Model, while necessary, is going to be difficult for this population to fit in to. The bulk of SUD treatment occurs in Outpatient settings. In addition, support groups that are imperative for this population often take place in public and private communal space. These spaces are at risk of being closed due to the close interaction so we will need creative solutions to support them during this crisis. Currently there are options for telehealth and zoom live streaming events for AA and NA meetings. Access presents a challenge to this population, so we need to address access in order to reduce barriers.

What can you do?

This virus has many physiological, social, economic, and environmental implications. Remember that the opposite of addiction is connection. The way we heal the damage and trauma caused by addiction is through compassion, kinship, and connection and you can do that in many ways during this trying time. Offer support, lend an ear, be available to those who are struggling. This population is going to see a decrease in communal support due to restrictions, and they may feel lonely and isolated. Loneliness and isolation are huge triggers for individuals in active addiction and recovery. Compassion is key.

What is RCA doing?

Please check out our COVID-19 update for information on how we are addressing the virus.

For more information, the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) has issued clinical guidance on their webpage, based on federal recommendations. ASAM is also sharing state-specific actions including New York State’s Office of Addiction Services and SupportsOhio Mental Health and Addiction Services and Washington State Health Care Authority.

Written by Domenica Personti

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