Research indicates a concerning increase in relapse, fatal and non-fatal overdose, anxiety and depression, and other mental health conditions due to the pandemic.

Social isolation, unemployment, and financial insecurity are just some of the stressors riddling individuals and families as the nation struggles to manage virus spread and economic downturn. The impact of COVID-19 on addiction and mental health was a paramount discussion throughout RISE’s recent virtual Population Health Summit.

During the live-streamed conference, Anthony Rizzuto, LMSW, CASAC, CAI-I, director of provider relations,  Seafield Center, shed light on how the pandemic has escalated substance abuse, increased relapse and overdoses, and exacerbated mental health, domestic violence, child abuse, and so much more. “In my lifetime, I’ve never seen anything anywhere near what COVID-19 has done,” said Rizzuto, an ARISE certified interventionist who has worked in the field of addictions for almost 20 years.

The impact of COVID-19 on addiction

When individuals have an increase in stressors in their lives and don’t have the necessary coping mechanisms to deal with them, it’s common to turn to drugs and alcohol as a solution to the problem, explained Rizzuto. Due to the amount of life stressors that have multiplied immensely due to COVID-19, people are having a much more difficult time achieving abstinence and sobriety. That population includes those who have had a substantial amount of sobriety in their lives, said Rizzuto, who saw this firsthand when his client, who was previously sober for 30 years, was admitted as an inpatient due to a relapse.

The problem is compounded by hospitals that had to close rehabilitation centers and detox services to increase bed availability, and the closure of self-help groups, gyms, and other resources and outlets that people rely on to help with their abstinence and sobriety.  

Rizzuto has also seen more and more individuals who have not used before but are now turning to substances like alcohol or pills as an option because they work from home and don’t have to drive or go into an office. With the increase in relapse and substance abuse, there has also been a significant jump in fatal and non-fatal overdoses, most commonly opioid related. A recent analysis released from the White House found overdose deaths were up 11.4 percent from January to April this year when compared to the same period in 2019.

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health

Mental health also continues to take a significant toll throughout the pandemic. “People who have mental health diagnoses, it’s escalated, and people who didn’t have diagnoses are now showing signs of anxiety and depression,” said Rizzuto.  He noted the following statistics to illustrate the depth of the problem:

  • A 31 percent increase in anxiety and depression compared to the same time of year in 2019
  • A 20 percent increase in trauma and stress
  • An 11 percent increase in suicide rates

Furthermore, one in four Americans between 18 and 24 years old say they have considered suicide in the past month because of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The increased isolation has been especially difficult among children and young adults. “There is absolutely something happening in the lack of socialization for kids, especially younger kids who haven’t been able to develop coping mechanisms,” said Rizzuto. “This week alone, I received four phone calls from parents of young people between age 14 and 17.”

Marital discord is also one of the many impacts of COVID-19. Couples are now home together 24/7, dealing with unemployment, financial issues, death of loved ones, illness, homeschooling children, and mental illnesses, said Rizzuto, who shared recent research that indicates 31 percent of couples report the quarantine has been damaging to their relationship.

Due to the increased time at home as well as the increase in stress from social, economic, and psychological factors, the number of calls and reports of domestic violence and child abuse have also spiked. More people are unemployed or working from home, and children are home from school, leading to close contact to the victim and the abuser, limited opportunities for the victim to escape abuse, and increased isolation from any supports. The use of drugs and alcohol also increases the risk and severity of abuse, he explained.

Support for mental health and addiction during COVID-19

Rizzuto provided key tactics for clients to find a healthy way to cope and feel more in control during COVID-19:

  • Maintain a semblance of “normal routine”
  • Try to move forward with pre-COVID life plans as much as possible
  • Be present in the moment and try to avoid worrying about the future
  • Maintain relationships with friends and family
  • Set reasonable expectations
  • Reach out for help

The American Medical Association has also requested governors and state legislatures adopt the new Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rules and guidance for the duration of the national emergency. These recommendations include:

  • Flexibility for evaluation and prescribing requirements using telemedicine
  • States must enact as part of their own Emergency Orders and other actions a complete removal of prior authorization and other administrative barriers for medications used to treat opioid use disorder
  • States must remove existing barriers for patients with pain to obtain necessary medications, including removing arbitrary dose, quantity, and refill restrictions on controlled substances
  • States must enact, implement, and support harm reduction strategies, including removing barriers to sterile needle and syringe services programs