People in recovery face more challenges during the coronavirus pandemic

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Anju Miura
BU News Service

BOSTON – As the COVID-19 pandemic leads to an increase in substance use and poses new challenges to people in recovery, legislators have been working to help find solutions.

“I was an isolated drinker,” said Catherine Collins, who said she is 22 years into recovery from alcoholism. “And for me, it’s just very triggering in the sense that I have all this time on my hands and I’m at home.”

Although she does not keep alcohol in her house, she said she has spent more time alone and feeling depressed.

“I can’t wait to get back to a new normal, which hopefully incorporates some of the old face-to-face recovery meetings,” Collins said.

She said one of her motivations is helping others as she works as a regional business development liaison at Spectrum Health Systems Inc., a Worcester-based nonprofit that supports people struggling with addiction and mental illness throughout Massachusetts.

While Massachusetts ranked second in accessibility to mental health screenings, according to the State of Mental Health report by Mental Health America, local lawmakers know more needs to be done, particularly in regards to addressing a lack of mental health providers and counselors.

“We are absolutely working on addressing [those concerns],” said state Rep. Carolyn Dykema, D-Holliston, who serves on the Legislature’s Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery.

“Mental health is a pretty broad range of concerns, which includes substance use disorders and all kinds of different types of mental health disorders and stressors,” Dykema said, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the process of tackling the problem. “All of the challenges still remain that we were trying to address before, but they’re even more complex because we’re trying to meet the needs in a remote environment.”

Mental health legislation also remains a priority for Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland, whose chamber unanimously passed a mental health parity bill in February.

The issue took on even greater importance in April, when the World Health Organization announced that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of getting the coronavirus and warned the public about misinformation that suggested drinking alcohol would protect them from COVID-19.

Nationwide, alcohol sales surged by 55% during the week of March 21 as many states issued stay-at-home advisories. Online alcohol sales increased by 243% according to a report by market research firm Nielsen.

“We know that substance use disorder is on the rise because of the pandemic,” said Dykema, pointing out isolation as one of the factors in addition to unemployment, eviction and foreclosure.

“When people are very stressed, they can turn to substances to help alleviate that stress, and it’s happening more than it has in the past,” she said.

Dykema said she learned that more people in Middlesex County are seeking treatment for substance use disorder after a conversation with District Attorney Marian Ryan.

Collins, who is also fighting chronic depression, agreed.

“It would be very easy, during times like these, to crawl into bed and pull the blanket over my head,” she said. “I have to force myself to take care of that part of me.”

Collins said isolation leads many people to neglect taking care of their mental health.

“It would be very easy to just not treat any of it and hide from everything that’s happening or self-medicate, which is what I think a lot of people are doing with alcohol,” she said.

To address those concerns, the Baker administration announced expanded telehealth coverage for mental health during the pandemic and temporarily suspended termination of individual Medicaid coverage.

As Massachusetts continues to offer a variety of mental health care services remotely, Dykema encouraged people to reach out to state or local organizations when they need to.

“They may be being delivered in a little different way than they were before, but if people need support for substance use or need someone to talk to, those supports are there,” she said. “But we know it’s not ideal.”

Before the pandemic, Spectrum provided several outpatient treatment services, from medication-assisted treatment to substance abuse counseling to driver alcohol education throughout the state, including Framingham and Milford. Now services are online.

“It’s very difficult to get comfortable with the Zoom meetings,” said Collins, who participates in virtual meetings every week from her home. “You’re still seeing faces of people that you know, but it’s really not the same as being in a face-to-face meeting with people.”

Like Spectrum’s peer recovery centers and Alcoholics Anonymous, many support groups and organizations have moved their meetings online.

While some find virtual meetings convenient, Collins said in addition to a loss of human interaction, others face difficulties to maintain anonymity and learn how to use Zoom.

“It’s more difficult to share personal information on a Zoom call,” she said.

Collins added that people may have to reveal their personal lives as they engage in virtual meetings from their homes.

“It’s not that they’re not available,” she said. “It’s just actually feeling connected to break the isolation, and meetings are going to be more challenging because they cannot talk in person.”

Collins described the pandemic as the most challenging time throughout 22 years of her recovery, but she has never stopped moving forward.

“It is a great time, because we all have the time on our hands,” she said. “There is hope in the meetings. They get the ability to hear hope, [and] they can recover from hopeless state.”

This article was originally published on MetroWest Daily News.

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