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A Pandemic within a Pandemic: Substance Abuse Rises Amid COVID

June 18, 2020
Recovery advocate Tim Ryan tells EHS Today how families, employers and communities can support those who battle with substance abuse.

The light at the end of the tunnel for the opioid epidemic has been extinguished with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Widespread shutdowns and social distancing measures have made it difficult for those seeking guidance and treatment for substance abuse issues to secure resources. Because of this, the United States has experienced a surge in alcohol sales and relapses as substance abuse becomes more prominent.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is a particularly grave risk to the millions of Americans with opioid use disorder, who—already vulnerable and marginalized—are heavily dependent on face-to-face health care delivery," researchers stated in "An Epidemic in the Midst of a Pandemic: Opioid Use Disorder and COVID-19," a recent study that examined the effects of the unprecedented situation.

As the subject of A&E's 2017 documentary "Dope Man" and founder of non-profit A Man in Recovery, Tim Ryan sees the escalating struggle addicts currently are facing.

Ryan, a recovering addict and thought leader on the subject of recovery, travels the country hosting interventions and speaks about substance abuse along with his wife Jennifer Gimenez, an actress and model who appeared in music videos for Mick Jagger and Tupac Shakur and movies such as Blow and Vanilla Sky

The recovery advocate for spoke with EHS Today about substance abuse and how employers, families and communities can assist recovering addicts.

How is COVID impacting mental health and people who are in recovery?

Tim Ryan: We had a pandemic with mental health and opiates and addiction prior to COVID. What COVID has unfortunately done is fueled another pandemic within a pandemic because you have different people – you have the people that might have been in recovery, early recovery or even long term that were used to going to 12-step-based meetings or Christian fellowship or refuge recovery or smart recovery. Now they have all these fears such as I might not have a job, I don't know if I can pay my rent or I'm losing my job… what am I going to do? Relapses have been through the roof.

Then you've had a lot of people who have mental health issues that can't get the help they need or it has fueled underlining mental health issues that people might have been able to mask. You also have people that are drinking more. Alcohol sales are up 250%.

People need purpose and connefction, and without that they get into their own minds. You take the person in early recovery and now they can't go get a six-month sobriety coin or go celebrate that year sober. They say, “Well, you know what, maybe I can have a drink?” or “Well, maybe I can smoke a little weed.” or “You know what, I can't sleep let me call my doctor and get some Soma” or “I have anxiety. Let me get some Xanax prescribed” They're opening Pandora's box. Suicides are up 1,000%. Mental health phone calls are up 800%. The past month and a half, our phones have been lighting up not only for people looking for help, but for families needing us to come in and do interventions and help get them into treatment.

What can a family do to recognize the signs and to assist this person with recovery during this time?

Ryan: Recovery is ultimately up to the individual, but people need to be very cognizant about the person in recovery. They need to keep their foundation. They need a routine. Don’t sleep in until 10 or 11. Get up, have your coffee, do a little prayer meditation workout, even if it's 10 push ups or 10 sit ups. Go for a little walk. Call five or six people a day. Check in on other people because we can do online meetings and things like that. But you need to be held accountable.

For the family members, if they have a loved one that hey think is struggling or relapse, I always tell them speak your truth through loving grace. A mother's intuition 99% of the time is always right. If something feels wrong, chances are something's wrong. If you normally log on every day and now they're not wanting to talk, they're starting to isolate. You might FaceTime with someone and see that they kind of look a little disheveled or they might be slurring their words, chances are they relapsed or something happened. That's okay. But you know, with opiates and things relapse can kill you. So, put your hand up and ask for help.

What happens is you get a lot of families that, I hate to say, this cosign the person's BS, and the enabling starts coming in. [The person in recovery] will say, “I can't pay my bills, I need money.” Well, where's the money going? Are they spending it to pay their bills? Or is it going to alcohol or drugs?

And if they do have a loved one struggling, ask for help, put your hand up. A lot of people don't know what to do. So they jump on Google. And that's one of the reasons why we work in conjunction with because trying to navigate treatment is very difficult. There are 35,000 treatment centers in the United States of America, and it's not one size fits all. People don't know what's available. 

What can employers do to help workers? 

Ryan: What happens is people come back, and the employers are just grateful to have people back. My wife and I speak to a lot of companies, small, big, medium, large corporations, Fortune 500, and mom and pop shops about how to look for addiction or crisis in the workplace. They need to talk about it. They need to have conversations.

When people are coming back to work and working eight to 12 hours a day, they usually spend more time at work than they do with family members. Get to know the people that you're working with. If Martha you're working with at the office all day and you're seeing her a little off, talk to her about what's going on. It might not be her, but she might say, “you know what, my husband, he's been drinking a lot. He lost his job. You know, he got a DUI. We don't know what to do.”

Open the conversations and look for the signs. What more companies need to do is if they have an employee that's struggling, do everything you can to get that person help because it's much more cost effective to support that employee, get them help get them into treatment, get them back and let them do their meetings, then try to replace them. It usually takes seven to eight people to replace that one person. So you're better off investing in people and letting them know that addiction and mental health is out there and if you have an issue, we're here to support you. Especially with everything that's been going on. You have COVID and then all suddenly we have all these protests and these riots. A lot of people are in fear. They have a lot of anxiety. They have panic, and they don't know who they can talk to. And if you're able to talk to people at the workplace, that's a great thing.

Are there any policies or procedures employers can put into place to show they are open to discussing mental health and substance abuse issues?

Ryan: The problem is when [an issue] happens is a lot of people direct the employee to human resources. Unfortunately, human resources just knows a bunch of policies and procedures. They don't know how to work with someone that is truly in crisis with addiction, alcoholism or mental health. And that's why they should be able to consult with outside providers or interventionists. A lot of companies are starting to do this. The bigger ones are employing mental health counselors or therapists and social workers to come in and meet with the employees and have the proper policies and procedures in place.

The biggest fear was someone in the work environment asking for help is, well everybody's going to find out. They don't educate employees about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), to where if you are getting help, nobody knows you can't lose your job and you can take off due to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). It's not explained properly to the employees, and a lot of employers don't know how to convey that message. And these are things that companies are really going to need to start working on, especially with people coming back. If there's a second wave happening, they want to keep your employees healthy and some might just need some online tele therapy and somebody to talk to because they need to talk with an expert.

Do you have anything else you can add about how employers, families and communities can support one another during this time?

Ryan: The best thing to do is to educate people. This is a disease. This is not somebody might have chose to drink or use drugs and then the disease kicked in. But we need to educate people about this stigma. And you just can't have the willpower to stop. It is a disease, and once we start educating people in the community about how to treat this as a progressive and chronic disease, a lot more people are not going to be afraid to ask for help and a lot more people are willing to be open when they're getting help and say “hey, you know what I struggling and this is what I'm doing. And I want you to hold me accountable.”

I look at the scenario of my son that passed away. He had been to treatment five times. If I would have told the neighbors “hey, you know what, Nick went to treatment. He's coming back. If I'm gone and my wife's gone at work and you see his buddies coming over and let us know.” But we were afraid to tell anybody. If people open up the conversation, you're going to find out very quickly, every person right now knows people that are struggling. I have struggled with mental health or substance abuse, everyone does. And we need to be able to talk about the elephant in the room.

You know what if they got a heartbeat they got hope. And don't be afraid to ask for help. That's the hardest thing to do is ask for help. There is help available.

Statistics on substance abuse during COVID-19 provided by The Recovery Village®.

About the Author

Stefanie Valentic

Stefanie Valentic was formerly managing editor of EHS Today, and is currently editorial director of Waste360.

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