By Jeffrey L. Reynolds, Ph.D
Staying home and at least six feet away from others helps limit the spread of COVID-19 and saves lives, but a lack of social connection might paradoxically put people – especially those with pre-existing mental health conditions and substance use disorders – at higher risk of death due to suicide, drug overdose, and alcohol poisoning.
In January, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that more Americans were dying from so-called “deaths of despair” than at any other point in history, and the last time we used words like “pandemic” and “crisis,” we were referring to widespread addiction to opioid painkillers and heroin.
Now, six months into the COVID-19 crisis, the anxiety, depression and uncertainty that has plagued our nation, our communities, and our families continues to deepen and recent studies confirm what we are seeing among our family, friends, co-workers and maybe even ourselves.
Federal researchers, for example, recently surveyed 5,412 Americans and found that more than 40 percent of respondents reported an adverse mental health or behavioral health condition, 13 percent said they had started or increased their use of drugs or alcohol to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 and a whopping 25.5 percent of those ages 18-24 said they had “seriously considered” suicide in the last 30 days.
In addition to young people whose college educations and entry into adulthood has been disrupted, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers on the financial brink and caregivers for elderly adults appear to have been impacted the most. Moms with young children are also experiencing severe anxiety and debilitating depression at record levels and a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 35 percent of moms said back-to-school stress and worry has had a “major” impact on their mental health.
When asked for specific signs of stress, mothers were more likely than fathers to say they have experienced difficulty sleeping, poor appetite or overeating, and frequent headaches and stomach aches.
Anxious, overwhelmed and desperate for some relief, moms and dads alike are turning to alcohol and other drugs for temporary comfort.
Market research giant Nielson reported in May that year-over-year alcohol sales were up 27 percent and that online alcohol sales via popular delivery apps skyrocketed 300 percent between February and April.
Sales of boxed wine increased tenfold during the first eight weeks of the COVID lockdown, while beer sales jumped 20 percent with the largest increases in 24-packs. Sales of whiskey, vodka, gin and other spirits soared 23 percent.
While drug use is harder to track and it will be months before annual government surveys shed any light on drug use patterns, an analysis of more than 1 million drug-related comment threads on the popular Reddit chatboard suggests that Americans have also been turning to drugs to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, with sharp increases in conversations about marijuana, alcohol, hallucinogens, tobacco and cocaine.
“The months of March, April, and May saw a remarkable rise in drug use, which leads to the conclusion that the pandemic has caused Americans to turn to drugs,” study authors wrote. “Drug use eased a little in July when the pandemic seemed to relax; however, when the second wave of COVID-19 hit us in July, Americans turned to drugs again.”
Their observations mirror what we’ve seen in Nassau, where new admissions at FCA’s addiction treatment clinics in Hicksville and Hempstead climbed during March and April and remained high as we launched online therapy sessions and groups.
Sadly, overdoses are also on the rise with the Nassau County Police Department recently reporting a 40 percent increase in opioid fatalities since this time last year.
Opioids like Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin alleviate physical pain, but they also provide relief for psychological pain, as do alcohol and other drugs. That relief, though, is temporary and within hours it returns, along with a hefty dose of guilt, regret and potential health risks.
So, what’s the key to getting through the rest of 2020?
Adequate sleep, proper nutrition and daily exercise are key to maintaining good physical and mental health. Reaching out to friends and family, going for walks, practicing yoga, meditation or mindfulness, playing games or doing puzzles, can be helpful as well. Track your alcohol and/or drug use.
Chart your stress levels, anxiety, depression and overall moods and take comfort in the fact that if you or someone you love needs help, there are counseling centers across Nassau County, as well as online resources that can provide support, guidance and care.
Those things are the PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that will keep us emotionally healthy, strong and safe as we await a COVID vaccine and a return to normalcy.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Reynolds is the President/CEO of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association (FCA), which offers a variety of services, including mental services and addiction treatment. The organization can be reached at 516-746-0350 or online at FCALI.org.