The Pandemic -- COVID-19
What is SAIR’s role in the fight to defeat the COVID-19 virus that is turning Americans’ lives upside down? We believe our expertise about alcohol and drug addiction education is germane to the difficulties this country has experienced with increased mental health problems and substance abuse in the pandemic period.
A great deal of emphasis was placed on identifying, tracking and preventing the spread of the deadly virus. As the pandemic has unfolded, however, a second major problem surfaced: Mental health issues arose as Americans tried to live their lives in different ways to avoid getting COVID-19.
The safety precautions health experts urged people to take -- mask-wearing, hand-sanitizing, disinfecting of spaces where germs might linger, and the like -- were designed to inhibit the spread of the virus. For most, these were an inconvenience or an annoyance, not a hardship.
However, the most successful way to fight infection has proven to be “social distancing” or “isolation” – at home or at a residence. The term “shelter in place” also came into common use during the first fearful weeks of the pandemic and again as second or third waves of the pandemic struck hard in some places.
In many cases, this physical detachment from family, friends, fellow workers, business associates, classmates and the general population was been mandated by government decree. This has created hardship.
The world as we know it closed down. Bars and restaurants closed, sporting events and concerts were cancelled. The economy has been disrupted due to business closures, layoffs and firings of employees, travel and business trips have been cut back. Funerals, college classes, church services, graduations, vacations, family reunions, gatherings with friends or family – all cancelled. The list went on and on. Only with the widespread distribution and administration of vaccination shots against COVID-19 beginning in 2021 did the social disruptions caused by the pandemic start to ease. Health experts predicted that booster vaccinations would probably continue to be advisable into 2023 to guard against new, evolving COVID strains among the most vulnerable.
While it proved to be effective at inhibiting spread of the virus, isolating from social contact caused other problems – not only physical and lifestyle problems, but mental health problems.
The feeling and emotions caused by stress -- anxiety, worry and fear -- can all be attributed to the ripple effect of COVID-19, its variants and its negative impact on society:
- Health issues
- Potential loss of jobs and income
- Uncertainty about the future
- Loneliness and boredom
- Anger and frustration
- Insomnia and sleep disorders
- Symptoms of depression
All of these conditions can be problematic. They also can lead to another very serious health problem – the misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs.
Since the virus hit and isolation became a primary source of prevention, the following substance abuse and mental health issues have surfaced:
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Increased alcohol-related health issues
- Increased domestic violence
- Increased drug usage (both legal and illegal substances)
- Increased drug overdoses
- Increased suicides
- Increased relapses among people in recovery
The virus has largely taken the “spotlight” off the opioid epidemic and other alcohol- and drug-related issues. If anything, however, more attention than ever should be paid to those at risk of misusing and abusing mind-altering chemicals. Isolation lends itself to causing people to medicate for escape from uncomfortable and negative situations and feelings.
In November 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that alcohol-induced deaths among Americans increased by 26 percent from 2019 to 2020 -- a jump experts said was almost certainly caused by the disruption of life in the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the stresses of isolation, financial difficulties and the loss of loved ones to the virus. The increases were evident among all age groups, but especially high among men and women in the 55-to-64-year-old age group.
While the word “isolation” has been commonly used during the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not mean that people have to be “isolated” or “secluded” or “segregated” or “remote.” Almost all these words have negative connotations, and probably for good reason: It runs counter to the human condition to be isolated from other human beings. For almost everyone, becoming cut off from contact with other people is unhealthy. For people who have had problems with alcohol or drugs, isolation is one of the biggest dangers they face in their day-to-day lives and it can pose a potentially deadly challenge to them to stay connected to other people.
A fundamental goal of most 12-step recovery programs is to get members to connect with their peers and to mutually share their experience, strength and hope with each other.
The goals we set for fighting the virus are similar to those set to battle substance misuse and addiction. Give a HUG -- Get a HUG!
- HOPE – Establish hope to motivate action to set and meet goals.
- UNDERSTANDING – Gain knowledge about how to identify and understand what goals to set and why.
- GUIDANCE – Learn how to meet the goals.
The word probably used more often than any other when describing the mental health needs of those affected by COVID-19 is “hope.”
Hope is the feeling that what is desired is attainable or possible or that events may turn out for the best.
Having hope is a vital psychological and emotional asset when it comes to dealing with circumstances that may produce unknown outcomes.
Hope keeps you moving ahead.
Let’s take the commonly used saying, “The light at the end of the tunnel.” Look at what we might encounter as we travel through the “tunnel of hope” in our quest to survive and overcome the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we start our trip, we may face a series of curves and turns in the tunnel and we are initially unable to see the light at the other end. We forge ahead with hope and eventually can see that light at the end of the tunnel. Success lies ahead. However, even though we can see that light – we must be wary of hidden “pitfalls” that may lie ahead of us before we complete our journey.
Because our battle with the COVID-19 virus has only begun, there are many questions about our trip which the experts have not been able to answer.
How far will we have to go, what we might encounter along the way and how long will our trip take? This is all new to us. But we will be motivated by hope to move ahead and experience a successful outcome. We will eventually defeat the COVID-19 virus.
Remember, if there is no hope, then things are hopeless. If things appear hopeless, no effort or motivation to accomplish what is desired will come forth. Hope is available from many sources – our program will help you find them.
A year for survival
Substance Abuse Information Resources (SAIR) was preparing to start 2020 with a series of new programs that would reach out and offer a HUG to those who were being adversely affected by substance abuse. Our basic website would provide new educational videos from SAIR, YouTube inspiration and support videos, Zoom interviews with community leaders and others who understand and support the need for free information about substance abuse issues. We would enhance our already established Hope, Understanding and Guidance (HUG) program with our main focus being on prevention and intervention and stopping alcohol and drug misuse and abuse before it progresses to an addictive disorder.
And along came COVID-19. The rest is history. This deadly disease rocked the world – and especially here in the United States and in New York.
Life changed dramatically. Instead of being a year of promise, 2020 began a period of survival, adjustment and change that continues in 2022 and will still reverberate in future years.
Our adversary, that funny-looking little virus, has created havoc worldwide. It has been amazing how much damage one sneeze in Wuhan, China (or so the evidence suggests) could cause.
Now we must deal with Change.
Change is the foundation of recovery.
- For those trying to overcome substance abuse
- For those fighting the COVID-19 virus
- For those dealing with mental health issues
What do we need to change?
- How we think – Psychological
- How we act – Physical
- How we feel – Emotional
- What we believe – Spiritual
This personal change process starts with a self-inventory of who we are. Being isolated has offered of us an opportunity to pause and take a “time out” to reflect on our hectic lives. What do we need to find out about ourselves? What should we do differently and what are our priorities when the COVID-19 danger has passed? How can we live a healthier, more useful and more meaningful life? What do we need to examine and possibly change?
SAIR knows that the same HUG strategy we use in overcoming substance abuse issues – by offering Hope, Understanding and Guidance – also applies to those struggling with the negative consequences of COVID-19.
Our message is: “Give a HUG -- Get a HUG.” If we cannot physically connect with others due to the pandemic, these times demand more than ever that we reach out and emotionally connect with other people. We can give others the emotional, spiritual and psychological Hope, Understanding and Guidance that they may need now more than ever.
Here are more powerful words: “You are not alone. We are in this together.” Acquiring empathy for others – identifying with their struggles, attitudes and hardships -- is a cornerstone of recovery from substance use disorder. So, too, is the need to take personal responsibility for one’s behavior and the need to change it as a way to get better.
All of this matters in a COVID-19 world, too. Compassion is crucial to coping with others, now all around us, who are living their lives on the edge due to the pandemic and its fallout. Our understanding of what others are going through will enable us to be able to ease their way and be of service to them. We will also have the opportunity to reflect on how the pandemic has changed us and to take the lessons we have learned and apply them to the future.
Personal responsibility means we should educate ourselves about COVID-19 and how to protect ourselves and those around us from infection. What should we do to minimize the risk of spreading the infection to others? We have no control over this disease, only how to respond to it.
Being alone does not have to mean being lonely.
Many people have discovered during the COVID-19 crisis that they have more opportunities to communicate with other people than ever before. Skype, Zoom and other forms of video and web conferencing have opened up new possibilities that many people did not know existed before the pandemic. In addition to video conferencing, other ways to stay connected are mail, e-mail, texts or instant messaging, telephone and social media. All of these communications tools are ways to “Give a Hug -- Get a Hug.”
Where should people suffering from negative fallout from COVID-19 and social distancing go to find support, information and hope?
Guidance for navigating through the dark and twisting tunnel of the COVID-19 pandemic, like recovering from alcohol and drug misuse, should emphasize that it is not an individual struggle and that people should not and need not do it alone. There are those people who understand the problem and want to reach out to help and support you if you are suffering from isolation and alienation. They are your family, friends, neighbors, clergy, healthcare providers and those with common interests. Contact them.
Government agencies, foundations and institutions have made resources available for people suffering through the pandemic. Some have tailored their services and information to people prone to misusing alcohol and drugs. They explain how the pandemic creates special issues for those who, in the past, have sought to escape their problems through drinking and drugging. We refer you to links attached to this dropdown and those found throughout our website.
More information on COVID-19
Just as SAIR recommends calling 911 if you or someone else’s life or health are in immediate danger due to alcohol or drugs, we also urge people to use the emergency life-lines created for those suffering mental health crises due to COVID-19-related stresses or other causes.
These emergency services include:
- The helpline (1-877-846-7369) and cell phone instant message systems (TEXT HOPENY 467369) were established by the New York State Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) for people who need immediate attention due to alcohols or drugs, including substance problems specifically created by the COVID-19 crisis.
- The Disaster Distress Hotline (1-800-985-5990) is operated by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
- SAMHSA’s suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
- A domestic and sexual abuse hotline (1-800-942-6906) is operated by the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, an Austin, Texas-based group supported by grants from the U.S. Justice Department, also maintains a hotline and services for domestic violence victims.
- The New York State Office of Mental Health created a program where mental health professionals provide free mental health screenings to New Yorkers who complained of emotional stresses and problems related to the COVID-19 crisis.
- The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids created a clearinghouse of information about services and information available to help children and families deal with the stresses created by the COVID-19 emergency.
As the COVID-19 emergency unfolded and health professionals researched the virus and how to prevent its spread, they also learned more about the side effects that the pandemic had on people’s mental health. These include specifically how social distancing and other lifestyle changes forced by COVID-19 affect those with substance use disorders.
New York University's School of Global Public Health found that 29 percent of respondents to a nationwide survey said they drank more because of the pandemic. People prone to depression reported being more likely than others to have increased their alcohol intake because of COVID-19, and younger people had higher drinking rates than older respondents in the pandemic. The survey results were contained in the April 2021 edition of Preventive Medicine. Researchers said the adverse mental health effects of the pandemic seem to mirror those noted during other traumatic social events in the United States, such as after the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
SAMHSA produced “Taking Care of Your Behavioral Health,” a useful guide on how to socially distance without becoming alone or alienated from other people.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control created a guide for managing stress in the COVID-19 age.
NIDA, the National Institute of Drug Abuse, wrote about the implications of COVID-19 and the efforts to prevent its spread on people with substance use disorders.
SAMHSA distributed a guide providing links to on-line meeting services offered by virtually every 12-step program for substance use disorders, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.