BRAUN: Drug and alcohol use rising during COVID

Once again, COVID hits the already disadvantaged hardest.

During the pandemic, many people grapple with stress and anxiety; those already coping with mental illness or addiction are having a particularly tough time.

Drug and alcohol abuse have increased with COVID, and so has suicide.

Phone help hotlines are flooded and certain statistics — online alcohol sales increased in the U.S. by over 200% — paint a dark picture.

“Addiction is skyrocketing. Even though we have a lot more resources in place, it’s not nearly enough,” says addiction therapist Cindi Brand, who worked formerly with CAMH.

Though semi-retired, Brand still does consultant work; requests for her help have been on the increase lately.

The pandemic has increased all forms of anxiety and stress even as it decreases the resources that could help.

Social distancing means, “People with on-going addiction issues can’t possibly get the help they need right now.”

A former addict who prefers to remain anonymous sees COVID as part of a larger addiction picture that involves politics, the opioid crisis that began in the late 90s and the economic recession of 2008.

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“The financial insecurity, the unknown, kicked off a rise in addiction that’s still with us. Some people never recovered after 2008,” he said.

Here in Canada, plenty of small business owners are going to be out of work because of COVID;  economic stress and isolation, “Create a chemical factory. Fear creates high cortisol and low dopamine, and after a few months of that, things begin to burn out and it’s like coming down from cocaine.

“And so you put in front of you something that makes you feel better — a drink, some drugs, things you used before and it was fun. Now it’s pain relief. Dopamine and Serotonin go up. Now you feel safe and empowered and you can concentrate …  Normally you wouldn’t do it again for a while, but now when you come down, all that pain is still there. So you go back to that thing that helped. And you go back again and again and again. And then you are addicted.”

The word despair comes up again when he talks about the downward spiral.

“By the time people get into illegal drugs, maybe they’re on the street, they no longer know what they’re taking.We’re talking about despair, and that’s the last stage before you die.

“When you’re in despair, well, you know the expression: anything goes. Despair is important. You just throw everything out.

“And if you’re vulnerable to addiction, you’re in trouble.”

During the lockdown, said Brand, it would have been almost impossible to find rehab or even group therapy and 12 step meetings.

Even now, such services cannot be at full capacity, and using those services, in person, is a crucial part of treatment.

“Human contact when you suffer from addiction is very important — you’re in a group, you’re out of your home, you’re talking to people, it’s a different environment.”

But during COVID,  “People are behind closed doors now. There has been a huge increase in alcohol and drug use — I’ve had a lot of calls about that. Even if it’s just underlying anxiety, people wake up and don’t know how they’re going to get through the day.”

Brand is talking about people with the wherewithal to buy liquor or fill a prescription. For anyone who is homeless, the situation is far more grim.

“Then you have an issue with bad drugs, street drugs. With what you can buy on the street, people are dying.”

In fact, the overdose situation is so extreme a group of Canadian pharmacists are demanding that a naloxone kit — and a lesson in how to use it — be made an automatic part of every opioid prescription. The hope is that If naloxone kits become common enough, people using street drugs will also avail themselves.

Deaths by suicide, overdose or alcoholism are referred to as “deaths of despair” in the U.S. and have increased to the point that life expectancy numbers in America fell three years in a row. The economic decline of the working class is involved here; COVID or no COVID, statistically where joblessness goes up, so do these types of death.

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