Substance Abuse: Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Made It Worse?

Liquor stores in many cities continue to do booming business even during a pandemic. While it’s nice to see a business bringing in much-needed revenue, experts are concerned the COVID-19 pandemic will exacerbate substance abuse problems in the country. There is some basis for this fear.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that following Hurricane Katrina the hospitalization rate for alcohol use disorders increased by 35 percent. This hurricane struck only one region in the country.

The pandemic spans every state in the country, which means the problem will likely be much worse. What will the impact be of this increased substance use on society as a whole?

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The Healthcare System

Men, women, and children often develop mental health issues following a crisis of this magnitude. The trauma doesn’t end when the crisis is over but lingers for years. When a person turns to drugs or alcohol for help in dealing with the situation, the healthcare system may find its patient load increasing.

The University of South Carolina conducted a study in 2006 to see how survivors were faring after the hurricane. Researchers found that individuals were smoking more, consuming more alcohol, and suffering from problems related to alcohol consumption at a higher rate than previously seen. Harris House is available to help individuals struggling with substance abuse issues during the pandemic, but these men and women need to seek care. Many aren’t doing so at this time.

The 24/7 free hotline offered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services hasn’t experienced a spike in calls recently, according to a spokesperson for the agency, but this doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. Often, the effects of trauma such as this pandemic aren’t seen for a period of time. It was three years after Hurricane Katrina that the state witnessed a dramatic increase in substance abuse-related hospitalization rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why Is This Crisis More Concerning?

The impact of Hurricane Katrina was only seen in Louisiana for the most part. This pandemic affects the entire country, which means men and women from every corner of America could need treatment for substance abuse disorders in the future. Furthermore, people may begin seeking care for an existing problem now, as the pandemic is making their problem worse. For instance, some people relapse when faced with a crisis of this magnitude. Others won’t seek help for their problem, even if they planned to do so before COVID-10 came into play. They are too frightened to seek medical help for fear of contracting the virus. Sadly, those who smoke appear to be more at risk of complications from the virus.

As many who suffer from a substance abuse problem also smoke, medical professionals are concerned about their health and want them to seek medical care immediately if they suspect they have the virus and are experiencing severe symptoms.

A Lack of Care

Many community behavioral health organizations find they cannot continue to treat patients as a result of this pandemic. They cannot provide services due to the economic damage that has occurred as a result of the national shutdown. Approximately one-third of these organizations state they only have enough funds to operate for three months at most under the current conditions.

In fact, roughly half of these organizations have already let people go. As the country is only one month into the pandemic with no clear end in sight, this is very concerning. The lifesaving services and treatment provided by these organizations may soon be a thing of the past.

Effects Already Being Seen

Key challenges the organizations are already facing include cuts to programs, a reduction in the workforce, and a lack of personal protective equipment. For instance, almost one-third of the organizations have been forced to turn patients away or reschedule appointments. Six out of ten cut one or more programs in response to the pandemic, with smaller organizations being hit harder in these areas.

Almost half of the organizations laid off one or more workers to save funds. Larger organizations bear the brunt of the impact here, especially those who see 8,000 patients or more each year. Four out of five organizations state they lack the personal protective equipment needed for a two month period as well. Less than ten percent of all community-based organizations offering this type of care believe they will be in operation in one year under the current conditions. Where will the patients go if these organizations are forced to shut down? When patients cannot get the treatment they need, substance abuse in the country increases.

Help Is Needed

The National Council for Behavioral Health put in a request to Congress for help through this difficult time. It requested $38.5 billion in emergency funding to ensure these organizations remain open to help those who struggle with substance abuse. In addition, they asked Vice President Mike Pence to assist in obtaining personal protective equipment for the workers.

Chuck Ingoglia serves as the president and chief executive officer for the National Council for Behavioral Health. He explains the pandemic is the biggest economic challenge the industry has ever faced and help is needed. Time will tell if relief is provided for these organizations. Additionally, the council is seeking donations from the public on its website to ensure patients have help when they need it most.

Substance abuse remains a problem in this country today. The pandemic and forced isolation of many Americans contribute to the problem. When help is needed, patients find they may have a difficult time reaching those who can be of assistance. Steps need to be taken to address this problem immediately. Lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina apply today. Due to the scope of the pandemic, this is one problem that cannot be ignored or overlooked. Fortunately, many centers remain in operation. If a community behavioral organization isn’t available, explore other options. An inpatient program may be exactly what is needed to help the addict through a difficult time. It never hurts to consider this option, as many have been helped by programs of this type.

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