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Drug Abuse and Overdoses Increase During COVID-19 Pandemic

covid-19 effects on mental health and substance abuse

The ongoing stress and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on lives globally. We’ve experienced loss, illness, isolation, economic turmoil, mental and emotional distress. For those battling a substance use disorder and/or mental health disorder, the last twelve months have been particularly disruptive. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals this hard truth: U.S. drug overdose deaths reached a record-high just as the pandemic tightened its grip.

Specifically, for the twelve months ending in May 2020, more than 81,000 Americans died from a drug overdose—the highest number ever recorded during a twelve-month period. This comes just after a positive and progressive year in 2019, during which the United States increased its life expectancy for the second consecutive year. 

However, the 2019 data was not all encouraging, and 2020 continued to underline some harrowing realities surrounding drug abuse. From 2018 to 2019, for example, fatal overdoses increased five percent. And in 2020, these overdose deaths continued to rise. According to the latest CDC reports, synthetic opioid drugs such as fentanyl remain the driving force behind these unintentional deaths.

Now, of course, it is still too early to calculate the full impact of COVID-19 on drug abuse in the year 2020. However, this preliminary data is troubling. In addition to the record-breaking number of overdoses, the CDC data shows that 13 percent of Americans increased or started using drugs to cope with the stress and emotions related to the pandemic. 

Other sources also highlight the issue of drug abuse and overdose increasing since the global pandemic began. For example:

  • According to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP), suspected drug overdoses increased almost 18 percent following the enactment of stay-at-home orders.
  • As recorded in a study of the National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS), the highest rates of overdose were in May 2020—and were more than double the baseline from 2018 and 2019. So far, the overall 2020 values were elevated by approximately 50%, according to this data source.
  • According to the American Medical Association, more than 40 U.S. states have seen increases in opioid-related mortality, along with ongoing concerns for those with substance use disorders.

Why are Drug Overdoses Increasing During the Pandemic? 

It is clear the pandemic has had devastating effects globally. It has changed our “normal” as we know it. But while many of us recognize that our lives have changed, we do not always stop to think about how this change has affected our personal, mental health. 

When you think about COVID-19 and its impact on mental health, the increases in drug abuse and overdose are, in many ways, less surprising. 

The increased isolation alone has caused many to suffer, particularly those who see people regularly and who rely on face-to-face communication and personal touch. Since the stay-at-home orders were enacted, people were left feeling lonely, sad, bored, and without help or support.

Additionally, many were hit by loss—loss of loved ones from this deadly virus, as well as loss of things or activities that were important to them. For example, many businesses closed and many people lost jobs during the pandemic, causing severe financial stress. 

In late June 2020, the CDC reported that mental health disorders severely escalated after the pandemic began. About one-third of American adults were struggling with anxiety and depression amid the early pandemic. This is 3x more people with anxiety and 4x more people with depression when compared to Q2 2019. In the month of June, more than one in 10 people considered suicide in the last 30 days. This is double the number that considered suicide during the entire year of 2018.

Common risk factors for drug abuse include stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, and boredom. These factors were all prevalent, particularly during the first few months of the pandemic.  As a result, many people turned to the bottle, or turned to hard drugs, to try and cope with their negative feelings. In the words of Ayana Jordan, MD, Assistant Professor and Addiction Psychiatrist at the Yale University School of Medicine, drugs and alcohol provide “instant gratification to allow one to escape from the pain of this reality.” They provide temporary relief and fleeting moments of happiness, which over time, can lead to addiction.

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, echoes the connection between COVID-19 and the rise in drug abuse. As quoted by Forbes, she says, “We know that consequences of the pandemic, including stress, grief, isolation and economic insecurity, can have a detrimental impact on mental health and can increase reliance on substance use, drive progression to addiction, and increase the likelihood of overdose.” 

The mental health symptoms caused by COVID-19 are just one piece of the puzzle. When assessing these rising drug-related statistics, it is also important to consider the higher risk of overdosing while in isolation. Many people are isolated without roommates or family members to support them. For those who use deadly drugs alone, there is a higher risk of overdosing without anyone being there to administer Narcan or call for help.

If you or your loved one is struggling with drug abuse, it is important to recognize that there are inherent risks. Now, more than ever, people are at risk for overdosing on drugs while alone. They are also at great risk for increasing their drug use while in isolation, out of despair or simply too much free time. If a loved one tells you they are using again, know that help is still available even during this pandemic. You can always call a drug treatment facility (such as Turnbridge) for guidance.

Right now, people are also at risk of suffering in silence with mental health issues. Even if you do not have a loved one struggling with a drug problem, it is possible your loved ones are battling something inside. Mental health issues are on the rise, and anxieties and stresses surrounding this pandemic have caused many to withdraw from the ones they love. It has also caused many to try new ways of coping, which may and can involve drug abuse.

Now, more than ever, it is important to reach out to friends and family. It is important to check-in and show support. They may not reach out to you, but by extending a helping hand now, you can save their life in some way. 

In a time of isolation and disconnection, this global pandemic has underlined the importance of connection and showing support to the ones we love. To learn how you can support those in recovery during this pandemic, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge at 877-581-1793.