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Devin Lincenberg, Psy.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been an especially difficult time for everyone as the contagious nature of the virus has forced people to socially distance and isolate themselves from friends, family and their support groups. The difficulties of isolation are even more pronounced for people recovering from opioid addiction. Recovery is a difficult process and a strong support system is key for a successful recovery, and social distancing makes it harder to maintain those support systems.

Early data shows that social distancing has been detrimental for people struggling with addiction. A recent analysis of 500,000 urine drug screens by Millennium Health showed a 32 percent increase for non-prescribed fentanyl. That same analysis notes that 30 states reported increases in opioid-involved overdose deaths since the start of the pandemic.

An increase in opioid-related deaths and relapses suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic is making it harder for people in recovery to establish support systems that could save their lives. The pandemic has created a troublesome mixture of anxiety, grief, isolation, financial burden and uncertainty that can threaten people with substance abuse disorders and lead to new cases of opioid addiction. However, despite the bleak numbers, many individuals are successfully navigating their recovery during this pandemic. It is important to tell people in recovery not to give up and demonstrate ways in which they can continue to build strong relationships and support systems during this pandemic.

Make use of virtual clinics

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a struggle for those dealing with substance abuse disorders, but clinicians’ desire to help during this pandemic has driven innovation for socially distanced addiction treatment.

This year has seen a rapid uptick in virtual recovery programs and telemedicine counseling sessions that serve to treat patients both physically and mentally while decreasing the risk of contracting COVID-19. These virtual addiction treatment programs have proven to be successful and safe alternatives to in-person treatment that may not be safe for at-risk patients.

Study results from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine showed that while most patients preferred in person treatment, they did find virtual programs helpful and even broke down serious barriers to treatment, such as the inability to transport themselves to treatment. Virtual treatment programs are very accessible and make treatment like physical therapy and mental health counseling possible from a patient’s own home. We know that failure to attend meetings and treatment makes a patient more likely to relapse, so virtual treatment fills a huge gap for patients. While it may not be as desirable as in-person treatment, we know that participating in virtual recovery is better than participating in no recovery.

Many virtual recovery programs have also made new commitments to patients to ensure they are being looked after by establishing patient advocate positions. A patient advocate is someone who reaches out to you periodically during your virtual treatment to check on you and make sure you are doing well. It can be difficult to keep up with treatment when you are physically away from a facility and patient advocates are a great way for clinics to show they are committed to your recovery during a difficult time.

Committing to a virtual treatment program is an excellent way to maintain a strong support system with the medical professionals helping you recover.

Continue to seek out your personal support group

Consulting with medical professionals is a key indicator to successful recovery; additionally, establishing a personal support group of friends, family and other people in recovery is just as important. You must continue to reach out and lean on those personal support groups any way you can.

We are social creatures who crave connection to others. Recovery and maintenance of sobriety with any addiction is more successful when we connect with people who are going through the same difficult process. Loneliness and isolation can lead to relapse, so finding ways to safely connect and social distance with your personal support group is imperative. This could mean connecting with your sponsor via an online video call or meeting up in-person in an outdoor and socially distanced space. Find creative ways to meet your close friends and family to help maintain that important emotional support while staying safe.

You should also continue to be involved in community support, such as 12-step or self-help programs. These groups are important for maintaining emotional support from people who are going through a similar experience. Most Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc. chapters are not doing in-person meetings to prevent the spread of COVID-19; however, these groups have also attempted to innovate themselves by setting up local virtual meetings. It is important that people going through recovery continue to go to these meetings. For more information on which local NA or AA chapters are doing virtual meetings, check the Narcotics Anonymous website or the Alcoholics Anonymous website.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a devastating barrier for people recovering from opioid addiction. Fear of contracting COVID-19 meant that some people were afraid to seek treatment and some facilities only offered limited services at the beginning of the pandemic.

However, treatment facilities and support groups have also been incredibly innovative and created virtual treatment programs and virtual support groups. These groups have been key to ensuring that those struggling with addiction are not left wanting for professional and personal support systems that are an integral part of recovery.

Patients on the road to recovery must continue to find support while maintaining safe treatment. Taking advantage of the virtual innovations created this year can help patients find the support they need to avoid relapse and successfully recover.

Devin Lincenberg, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist with specialty training in health psychology and cognitive-behavioral therapy. 

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