An Empty Stadium: The Pandemic’s Impact on Recovery

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — September 21, 2021 — 4 min read
One Sunday, as you’re watching the big game on TV, the camera pans over to the crowd. But where there should be shouting and cheering and waving foam fingers, there’s only silence. A stadium of people—gone. All 94,134 seats are empty.

That’s how many Americans we lost to substance overdose last year. More than we’ve ever lost before.

The Non-Viral Casualties

In March of 2020, the country shut down. Officials urged us to shelter in place, to “stop the spread” and save more lives.

So, we did. By April, most of us were locked away at home. Businesses closed. Half a million North Carolinians lost their jobs. Communities stopped in their tracks. Weddings, long-planned vacations, visits to see grandma: all canceled.

But as we were saving countless lives from the virus, we became lonelier than ever before.

It was found that by June 2020, one in 10 U.S. adults were using alcohol or drugs more frequently to cope with COVID-related stress (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC).
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According to the American Psychological Association (APA), pandemic-related challenges like loneliness were “major drivers” of substance use. The other drivers included financial stress and general anxiety about the virus. In fact, one in three American adults reported struggling with depression or anxiety symptoms because of the pandemic.

In North Carolina, at least 40 percent more people died of overdose in 2020 compared to 2019. When you look at the numbers, the shutdown’s impact on overdose rates is clear.

 

You can see in the chart above how overdose deaths climbed to record highs after March 2020. (And most of these deaths were from opioid use.)

Unique Pandemic Challenges for Those in Recovery

These two things are usually true for people recovering from a substance use disorder (SUD):
  1. Their recovery is the most successful when they’re fully engaged with life.
  2. They are more likely to overdose if they start using substances again.
For nearly a year, the pandemic stripped us of our lives. Most people were stuck alone at home. Days ran together. There was little to do in the community.

For many, social isolation was frustrating. But for those in recovery, it was potentially fatal.

They lost their support system, a key part of maintaining recovery. Support systems include:
  • Friends and family
  • 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
  • Support groups
  • Specialized medical SUD treatment
  • Rehabilitation programs
It’s likely that few or none of these supports were available to those in recovery. Instead, people with SUD were left to battle this serious illness on their own. Lockdowns became recipes for relapse, especially for those without internet access.

With little or no support, some people may have turned back to substances to cope. This is extremely dangerous, especially for those in recovery from opioid use disorder. They may try to take the same dose that they used to take before they quit. But because they haven’t built up a tolerance over months of increasing use, they’re more likely to overdose.

In other words, it would be like a first-time drinker downing a bottle of liquor all at once.

We Don’t Know the True Toll Yet

It takes time for overdose deaths to be verified. Therefore, the number of deaths by overdose is likely much higher than what the CDC has reported. And we can only speculate on how many of those deaths were due to a pandemic-related relapse.

To Those Who Survived

Stand tall and proud. While battling an invisible illness, you overcame one of the most difficult years of this century. You crawled through the trenches and emerged stronger and more resilient than ever.

And to Those Who Didn’t

You will not be forgotten. Somewhere along the way, a system or a someone failed you. So, as we move forward from the horrors of 2020, we promise to stay alert, to advocate, and to strive for better for people like you—always. 
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