As the world works to right itself and reaches at least some sense of normalcy after the pandemic’s reign over the past two years, it faces significant challenges. Both individual and collective wellbeing has been significantly depleted across our entire worldwide population to an unprecedented level. At not only the individual level but from community-wide, regional, and national public health perspectives, emergency action is needed in some ways to correct our course.
One significant area of public health concern in our increasingly post-pandemic era is that of addiction treatment and recovery. From narcotics to alcohol to restricted drugs and substances, addictions and their severities have skyrocketed. This will require intensive, concerted action to correct on a systemic, populations-wide scale.
Addiction Recovery: Normal Elements of the Process
Standard practice for addiction recovery protocols has been established since before the pandemic. Though they can vary widely by substance type, demographic, facilitator, and case details, a few basic elements would be included in virtually any framework for addiction recovery:
Commitment to the Program
Individuals engaging in any type of alcohol addiction recovery process would need to (or at least be strongly encouraged to) make an internal, personal commitment to following through. The intensely difficult, personal, and often prolonged nature of the road to addiction recovery makes it very unlikely that someone will successfully achieve recovery if they aren’t personally committed to reaching that goal despite experiencing cost, sacrifice, and difficulty.
Receiving External Help and Support
Addiction recovery programs almost always involve robust protocols for constructing support networks and mechanisms for recovering addicts. These networks almost always include peers, family members, and/or other significant relationships. Many addiction recovery programs include conversation prompts, specific assignments, and mechanisms for feedback and connection with not only an addict but members of their support networks as well.
Support from Medical Professionals
Especially for severe cases, the support of medical professionals is usually vital for individuals engaging in addiction recovery. The recovery process can often be physically dangerous and potentially very harmful (or even deadly) if engaged incorrectly. Because of this, completing addiction recovery programs should almost always include some kind of medical care provider oversight.
Developing a Plan for Introducing Alternative Lifestyle Practices
Addiction recovery involves removing not just the actual substance itself but often requires significant lifestyle redesign. Addiction recovery can involve needing to reshape friends or social groups, regular pastimes, and patterns, and sometimes even careers, location, living arrangements, and more. It usually requires significant or even comprehensive lifestyle changes. It can require replacing former ways of life with new, healthier, and more sustainable practices.
Being Equipped for Long-term Recovery
Addiction recovery is a lifelong process for many former addicts. Successfully exiting addiction requires robust, long-term, stable frameworks that sustain individuals long past their first decision to combat an existing addiction.
The Effects of the Pandemic on Addiction Recovery Protocol
The effects imposed by COVID-19 had wide-reaching effects. These pervasive restrictions and difficulties caused fundamental problems for many of the normal steps for addiction recovery. In fact, virtually every facet of a standard recovery program listed above could have been affected by pandemic realities. These are just a few examples:
During the pandemic, says Lois Ritter (Teaching Associate Professor for the masters of public health program at UNR), “Emotional issues were exacerbated or developed. Stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and grief all heightened… Some people who struggled with substance misuse or mental health issues pre-pandemic were not able to access services so they relapsed or self-medicated.”
When people experience emotional turmoil, it is often social connections and networks that can provide robust aid to lessen or reduce that experience. However, during the pandemic, “Social isolation compounded these stressors by contributing to a sense of loneliness and declines in [mental] health” (Mai-Ly Steers, Assistant Professor for the school of nursing at Duquesne University). The enforced isolation and separation necessary for often prolonged periods during the pandemic created severe social connection deficits that exacerbated emotional difficulties.
From a public health perspective, the pandemic had more significant impacts on recovering addicts from particular demographics than it did on others. In times of heightened need or strain on the healthcare provision landscape, issues of social health and healthcare inequalities become more pronounced. Addictions are already more prevalent amongst demographics that experience restricted access to healthcare. COVID-19 worsened that reality.
Because the pandemic involved long periods of time when it was much more difficult (or even impossible) to secure appointments or support from medical professionals due to the overburdened and understaffed healthcare system (as well as temporary restrictions in some cases or areas that limited access to doctor’s offices for non-emergency issues), restricted access to medical care providers became another inhibitor of addiction recovery processes for many individuals.
Finally, the tectonic upheaval that the pandemic created across whole industries, entire communities, economic categories, and the healthcare landscape at large has created deep mistrust and fear in the system as a whole, including its future reliability. This has shaken many people’s hopes of being able to achieve long-standing security and equilibrium, both within their own individual lives and in their greater communities.
Moving Beyond the Pandemic: Improving Care and Resources
Thankfully, it’s not all bad news. According to Allison Forti (Ph.D., LCMHC, NCC, Associate Teaching Professor, and Associate Director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University): “One positive result of the pandemic is the wave of telehealth options, resulting in increased access to behavioral health support. Traditional substance abuse programs such as Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous now have virtual meetings available. Many local mental health counseling practices now offer in-person and telehealth services, providing outlets of help for isolated individuals suffering from substance abuse.” This advancement, in addition to many other measures that are currently being designed and enacted, is helping change the status quo for addiction recovery even as we continue to battle the lingering effects of the pandemic.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has caused severe difficulties for our addiction recovery systems here in the United States, it could be argued that the last two years will ultimately have positive effects on our addiction healthcare and support networks for those recovering from addictions.
The pandemic pointed out weaknesses in our offerings and forced the addiction recovery landscape to change, adapt, and become more effective. Though there is still much work to be done to equip our system to effectively meet the needs of the many individuals across the country that need support in ridding themselves of addiction, those efforts are being made and will continue to improve our system to better serve its stakeholders.