Many troubling issues came with the COVID-19 pandemic from navigating mental health obstacles due to social isolation, lasting physical health problems that were a result of the coronavirus itself, financial instability because of job losses, and declining grades with students now learning remotely and much more. While the world seemed to halt and shut down, ironically, problems evolved out of the pandemic and existing ones seemed to heighten. A seemingly forgotten population that has been deeply impacted by these changes are those who struggle with substance abuse and/or are actively recovering. “Substances” refers to alcohol, solvents, illegal drugs, and prescription medications as well. As an ACOA, adult child of an (recovering) alcoholic, I have directly seen how COVID-19 brought about difficulty for this group. Increased anxiety and stress, loss, distancing, and routine changes are all significant triggers that can and have caused people to relapse. This research blog will further explore the topic of addiction as it relates to COVID-19 and analyze how it has impacted those with substance use disorder (SUD) and effective ways they can be supported.
When looking at the population who have SUD, it is important to note that they can be triggered by various situation or things in day-to-day life. Triggers are anything read, seen, and heard that can be associated with a traumatic event in someone’s life. These can cause a person’s thoughts, emotions, and physical body to relive painful moments as if they were happening in present day. Substances are often sought out by those who are unfamiliar with healthy ways of coping when triggered. It is necessary to acknowledge that circumstances not similar in nature to past traumatic situations can surface the same reactions too, eliciting active use or a relapse. For example, an individual who excessively drinks alcohol to cope from a death might do the same if their employment is terminated. Loss is the common thread between the two situations that leads them to drinking.
With the idea of loss in mind, COVID-19 brought about much of this for countless people. Some experienced losing a loved one from health complication due to the virus, the closing of businesses caused many people to get laid off, and high restrictions cut off a sense of freedom with commonly enjoyed spaces being temporarily shut down and much more. Along with this, Eviction, Health Inequity, and the Spread of COVID-19 mentions that the pandemic-driven economic recession created a threat of mass evictions and increased housing displacement. While these losses have seemed to impact everyone negatively in some way, those with SUD had to and are continuing to juggle the average stress from loss that our pandemic has caused on top of their personal addictions. Outside of the pandemic, those with active addictions struggle to manage a life that feels chaotic and overwhelming. Sober individuals aim to manage their recovery and develop healthier skills to cope with the chaos of day-to-day life. The added losses that coronavirus has brought is more mental and emotional weight upon this population, which explains the rise of overdoses throughout the past year.
The social distancing restrictions and closures have also impacted this group deeply. In order for someone who uses to come to a place where they are ready to acknowledge their addiction or for one to maintain sobriety, having connections and maintaining relationships is necessary. Group meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous give them the opportunity to talk through struggles, receive empathy, guidance, and build healthy friendships with similar people. Before the pandemic, weekly meetings gave individuals a day to look forward to that would offer them encouragement on their healing journey. Many organizations that are geared towards helping people with SUD have either halted or gone entirely remote, which may not be as easily accessible for low-income individuals who cannot afford the technology needed to video call. According to Eric Klinenberg’s article Dying Alone: The Social Production of Urban Isolation areas of poverty and degraded social environments are already associated with isolation. The pandemic has increased this even more. Being disconnected from family members and friendships can induce feelings of loneliness, boredom, and depression that make them turn back to using drugs, alcohol, and so on. Sadly, the connections that many are lacking from throughout the pandemic has pushed them further or back into a lifestyle possessed by addiction.
One of the biggest impacts COVID-19 has had on those with substance abuse disorder is the change of routine. Generally, people thrive and do best when living with a schedule. Doing so can instill responsibility, preparation, punctuation, and normalcy. For those with SUD, the pandemic has likely made it more difficult for them to control temptations. Dallas Rogers and Emma Power noted in Housing Policy and the COVID-19 Pandemic the trouble that quarantining and self-isolating people into their homes has brought up. The changing habitational dynamics has made individuals with SUD feel stagnant and unmotivated to work on their addictions. Restricting people to their homes has also increased down time, resurfacing past trauma. The reemergence of troubling memories and feelings, along with the lack of available support, has led some to relapse back into active addictions. To conclude, it can be seen that individuals who live with substance abuse disorder have been one of the multiple “forgotten” groups throughout the pandemic. Along with general troubles COVID-19 has caused, they have experienced even more difficulty while living with an addiction and trying to maintain sobriety.