July 8, 2020
A Collision of Crises: How the Coronavirus Pandemic is Exacerbating the Opioid Epidemic

It’s often said that the opposite of addiction is connection. On the surface, sobriety might be thought of as the most obvious antonym to addiction, but as psychologists explain, addiction often isn’t about the pleasurable effects from a substance, but an inability to connect with other human beings.

A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 45% of adults in the United States report that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over COVID-19. In its report, KFF stated that, “[d]uring this unprecedented time of uncertainty and fear, it is likely that mental health issues and substance use disorders among people with these conditions will be exacerbated.”

COVID-19, Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19, Ohio and the Nation were facing an opioid epidemic. Ohio has long had one of the highest mortality rates in the United States to overdose deaths. Then in March, COVID-19 changed life as we know it. Ohioans were urged to stay at home to avoid contracting and spreading a new illness. For all of us, it meant cutting many of our lines of human connection. For those at risk of developing a mental health issue or substance use disorder, or those already living with either, this was the elimination of vital support in their lives.

This is definitely a more vulnerable time for a lot of people.
Cindy Van Keuren, president-elect of the Ohio Psychological Association

We talked with Cindy Van Keuren, president-elect of the Ohio Psychological Association, and member of the Ohio Opioid Education Alliance. Cindy told us that, “[t]his is definitely a more vulnerable time for a lot of people. We don’t have easy access now to support groups and people may not have access to their typical hobbies.” Cindy shared that even people who generally have healthy coping strategies or coping mechanisms, are now turning to some vices. “Whether that’s opioids, alcohol, gambling, folks are looking for a way to escape the realities of this crisis.”

While businesses are slowly reopening and Ohioans are slightly more inclined to leave their homes, life is still far from back to normal. Ohio has seen record-breaking rates of unemployment, surges in liquor sales and in Franklin County, rising rates of overdose deaths, as 62 deaths were reported in the month of April.

The added stress that COVID-19 has brought is evident. The isolation, decreased access to medical treatment and the challenge in finding distractions is what many experts feel has escalated the problem.

Well Being Trust, a national public health group, concluded from analysis that as many as 75,000 Americans could die because of drug or alcohol misuse and suicide as a result of the despair caused by COVID-19.

The group calls for comprehensive federal, state and local resources to increase access to mental health and addiction resources.

Remember the Children

Significant attention has been given to how adults are impacted by the pandemic – from employment to economics to mental health – but we cannot forget the impact on kids and teens. They are a particularly vulnerable population during a National crisis.

Just like adults, kids and teens can face anxiety, worry, depression, exposure to abuse and a lack of resources like food, stable housing or the internet. Coupled with the limited ability to see friends, teachers and role models, the risk for mental health issues and drug or alcohol use significantly increases.

How can we prevent mental health issue and substance misuse during the COVID-19 crisis? It starts by talking to your kids and loved ones. The more conversations we can have about well-being and coping, and the risks associated with drug and alcohol misuse, the more likely we are to prevent mental health and substance use issues.

The Nation and Ohio are fighting simultaneous health crises, and one is only exacerbated by the other. There remains a plane full of Americans that die each day from an opioid overdose, and we must remind ourselves that for every one opioid overdose death, there are 10 admitted for treatment, 32 who visited the ER, 130 who are dependent on opioids and 825 non-medical users.

If you or a loved one need help, the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has introduced the COVID CareLine. Through the support line individuals can receive confidential emotional support. The number is toll-free and staff members can be reached from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., 7 days a week by calling 1-800-720-9616. More information on the COVID CareLine is available on the OMHAS website.