Substance abuse pressures rise during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: May. 14, 2020 at 4:53 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- A new study by American Addiction Centers estimates one in three people tele-working may be more likely to drink while on the job, during this pandemic. The survey also found a third of US workers believe they’re drinking more during the COVID-19 outbreak, with beer being the drink of choice for most.

Now, some professionals in the substance abuse community are concerned more are turning to alcohol to get through the stress and isolation of these times.

“Alcohol is a friend to some…it comes off as a friend, but it’s not. It’s a foe," said Karen McGinnis.

A new study by American Addiction Centers estimates one in three people tele-working may be...
A new study by American Addiction Centers estimates one in three people tele-working may be more likely to drink while on the job, during this pandemic((source: CNN))

McGinnis’s relationship with alcohol nearly destroyed her life. It began with high school parties, but over the years, drinking led her to periods of homelessness, run-ins with the law, and losing her son, Owen, twice before he was 21 months old.

"I was walking the streets of Tampa with one flip flop on," said McGinnis, about those low moments. "I didn't want to live like that anymore."

After many attempts to quit alcohol - and abstain from other substances - she was inspired by the love of her family and her son to find a fresh start and begin the difficult journey of recovery. She says 20 years prior, drinking began as a way to feel like she belonged, and to mask childhood traumas, but as a new mom, she was finally ready to confront that inner turmoil.

“The only thing I had ever done perfect in my life was have this beautiful child, and I refused to have the disease of addiction take that from me, too," said McGinnis.

Five years sober, McGinnis now helps addicts. She works as an outreach coordinator at American Addiction Centers. In her role, she tries to help people in need get connected with resources to find their own healing journey.

"I learned that the longer you stay sober and clean one day at a time, it gets easier," said McGinnis.

Now, she - and others - are concerned the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus could push some to alcohol or other drugs. The confinement to the home, the fear of the unknown, and financial challenges are all factor, according to experts.

“This could be a very vulnerable time for them to relapse or use a substance," said McGinnis. "It’s very important daily to take care of yourself.”

American Addiction Centers reports a recent increase in calls for help, compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. A spokeswoman says they have seen outreaches go up by more than 10%. This has resulted in more admissions at some of their facilities. Alcohol is still the number one reason people seek treatment.

“For people who are on the spectrum - which is anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the population - alcohol and other drugs, are their comfort foods," explained Dr. Mark Calarco, the national medical director for clinical diagnostics at American Addiction Centers.

Calarco - a substance abuse specialist - says addicts often suffer from low dopamine, your mood-bosting hormone, and alcohol and drugs can fill that void.

"Things that make their dopamine levels go up, like alcohol, tobacco, other drugs they make them feel more normal. They’re just trying to feel happy,” said Calarco.

Experts like Calarco recommend staying active and sticking to a schedule in these times. Calarco says addicts should get at least an hour a day of activity, and it's essential they find ways to safely connect with others. While he and other providers are emphasizing virtual therapies are available to clients, he's concerned many will still feel disconnected.

“What we do miss, and I do think it’s an integral component to recovery, is that we do sometimes need to be in the same space with a person and sometimes we need to touch people - in a healing way - to connect with them more," said Calarco. "So we can do a lot virtually, but I still think we’re missing that component.”

Professionals emphasize virtual counseling and digital support groups are better than suffering in silence. There are still in-person treatment options for urgent cases.

Calarco also weighed in on the recent uptick in alcohol purchases. He believes some of it could be explained as Americans stocking up on items that may not expire for some time, similar to the bulk buys of cleaning products, toilet paper and meat. But for those in recovery, he says having alcohol around the home is a major temptation.

“During these time of isolation, with a lot of stressors...hands are the devil’s workshop if we aren’t busy…so people in recovery, they need to be busy. They need to have structure, and they need to have a program and work that program pretty much every day,” said Calarco.

Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services, Doctor Elinore McCance-Katz, who leads SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), is alarmed by recent surges in booze sales. In March, she says stores saw a 58 percent increase in alcohol purchases, while online orders rose by 300 percent. She says the problem is if a person goes from drinking once or twice a week to every day, a transition back to regular life could be hard.

"You can develop physical dependence to alcohol relatively quickly and that can result in you developing an alcohol use disorder, and physical dependence on alcohol can be tough. It can be difficult to stop use," said McCance-Katz. "So this is a serious situation."

Experts stress that there are many resources out there for help, for those struggling with addiction or for concerned loved ones.

"We want people that are experiencing problems not to wait. These kinds of issues can really consume one’s life if they’re not attended to," said McCance-Katz.

You can call the free 24-7 national line, 1-800-662-HELP or visit SAMHSA's treatment resource website .

American Addiction Centers is also there for support. You can also speak with someone for free at any time at 1-888-327-6918.

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