Humanity is facing a crisis unlike any in recent memory. The virus is pernicious, it is insidious, and it is deadly. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic- how long it will last and how severe it will ultimately be- only makes things worse. But there are some certainties, some things that we can expect and predict and prepare for. After COVID-19, we will most likely witness a surge of mental and behavioral health cases, including substance abuse and addiction problems, that will dwarf the opioid crisis and strain communities throughout the nation.
How can we predict this? Immediately following the Great Recession, suicides rose by 13%, and were attributed to skyrocketing unemployment1. Over the past four weeks, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment, the highest number of claims in U.S. history. To put this in context, this is significantly larger than the entire population of the state of New York, which is currently 19.45 million. Anxiety, loneliness, personal loss, job loss, financial ruin and an uncertain future are often precursors to both mental illness and substance abuse. The virus is creating the perfect storm for an already vulnerable demographic; the current economic shutdown posits the very real possibility of an unprecedented rise in “death by despair.”
We are already seeing signs of the increasing mental health burden individuals are feeling across the country. The Department of Health and Human Services reported an 891% increase in calls to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMSHA) crisis hotline between March 2019 and March 2020, with a 338% increase from February to March 20202 alone. Legal sales of alcohol and marijuana in March 2020 have skyrocketed.
Those of us working in the addiction space must recognize the strengths of all types of treatment and recovery programs, including the strengths of the faith-based community. In addition to that, we must look for new was to reach those in need. According to research by Haiden Huskamp3, only a small proportion of people with a substance use disorder (SUD) receive treatment. The shortage of SUD treatment providers, particularly in rural areas, is an important driver of this treatment gap.
Telemedicine could be a means of expanding access to treatment. By implementing evidence-based long-term solutions to these problems, utilizing better technology that will take “virtual care” to the next level, and using both predictive and prescriptive technologies to leverage artificial intelligence, telemedicine, deep learning and precision treatment, we can increase recovery capabilities. Now is when addiction service providers need to figure out how to put hope truly within reach of those who need it most.
It is every provider’s responsibility- regardless of approach or affiliation- to both recognize and address the underlying issues with which every person suffering from addiction struggles with- questions of identity, worth, value, and purpose. Our centers and their successes suggest that faith should be embraced as another critical component of care if we are truly interested in fostering life-long recovery and personal resilience.
Working with those struggling to overcome addiction requires compassion, patience, empathy, and determination. In the era after COVID-19, how we choose to care for those struggling with mental health and substance abuse dependency will determine how many lives we save, how quickly we recover, and how future generations will define us.
*Gary Blackard is currently the President and CEO for Adult & Teen Challenge USA, a faith-based addiction recovery organization located in Ozark, Missouri.
- https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/returning-to-resilience-the- impact-of-covid-19-on-behavioral-health