Quarantine. Isolation. Social distancing. Stay at home. This is our new lexicon. We are all at our wit’s end and craving social contact and in-person interactions—in a word—normalcy.
Now imagine you suffer from addiction. So much of your support structure and ability to cope is dependent on human interaction and routine. Someone in recovery from addiction might rely heavily on AA or NA meetings or other support groups. She treasures in-person interactions with her sponsor and her sponsees. Her ability to maintain her daily routine, to go to work, is critically important. Stress and anxiety resulting from financial worry, concern about being at high risk to contract the virus, lack of structure, and concern over relatives and loved ones can all put recovery in jeopardy.
In addition, in a world where stigma is still attached to the disease of addiction, people with the illness tend to already feel isolated and rejected. If those of us who do not have a mental illness feel there are barriers between us and our friends and feel isolated due to the lack of normal human interaction we are now experiencing, perhaps we can tap into those feelings and get a glimpse of what someone with an addiction likely feels on a regular basis.
We are all appropriately focused on the vulnerability of the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, but we cannot ignore how dangerous this environment is for someone with mental health issues, including addiction. In a recent interview, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, remarked, “We immediately can recognize the unique challenges of COVID-19 for people having an addiction. Some of these are structural; the healthcare system is not prepared to take care of them. They relate also to stigma and social issues. The concept of social distancing makes such people even more vulnerable because it interferes with many of the support systems that can help them to reach recovery. And, on top of that, drugs themselves negatively influence human physiology, making one more vulnerable to getting infected and more vulnerable to worse outcomes. So that’s why there is tremendous concern about these two epidemics colliding with one another.”
We know that members of our community are struggling with substance misuse and addiction and that they are being impacted by the COVID-19 environment. In the support group that Communities Confronting Substance Abuse (CCSA) runs for loved ones of those struggling, virtually every participant has expressed a heightened level of concern for their loved ones during the current pandemic. Even those of us fortunate enough to have loved ones firmly in recovery express concern about the current quarantine being a destabilizing force against recovery.
What should we, as families of those struggling, and as a community, do to help this vulnerable group? Simply put, embrace them. For now, those embraces will need to be virtual, but ensuring that social distancing is limited to physical distancing, and perhaps overcompensating with emotional and virtual closeness, can go a long way toward helping those in our community who struggle with the disease of addiction.
Dr. Volkow sums it up well by stating, “I think that we need to create a society that provides social support and allows people to participate in a meaningful way. If we want to achieve integration of people into society, one of the things that we need to do urgently is remove the stigma of addiction because when you stigmatize someone, you are socially isolating them. No one likes to be mistreated or discriminated against. So, if you are a person who is addicted and you are afraid of discrimination, you will not seek help. You will continue to isolate. So I think as we’re dealing with the opioid crisis, as we’re dealing with COVID-19, we cannot tolerate discrimination. We cannot tolerate stigma. And we need to be very creative to identify it and to create models that will actually eliminate it.”
Destigmatizing substance abuse and addiction is something we at CCSA have been focused on for the last two years. Many of you have attended our community awareness events and symposia. Many of your children have attended our student programing at their schools. Our community has taken strides toward achieving a stigma free environment, but there is still a long way to go. We need to redouble our efforts in this incredibly vulnerable time to protect our fellow community members who have been afflicted by the disease of addiction.
CCSA, together with Refa’enu, is privileged to be presenting a webinar at 9 a.m. on Sunday morning, May 10, at which Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Dr. David H. Rosmarin will discuss the impact of COVID-19 on those with addiction and mental health disorders. (Please see advertisement for details.) These two luminaries will give attendees a glimpse into specific strategies that we can all employ to cope with the COVID-19 crisis and what we can take away from this profound experience. I hope you are all able to join us for this complimentary webinar.
Etiel Forman, a 25+ year Teaneck resident, and his wife Lianne, are proud parents of five children (and grandparents of two grandchildren), including their daughter who is currently in recovery from addiction. Through their family’s struggles they have channeled their efforts toward creating community awareness about substance abuse and addiction and founded Communities Confronting Substance Abuse ( www.Time2TalkAddiction.org), a charitable organization committed to education, awareness and prevention of substance misuse and addiction.