Information is fundamental as we maneuver through the COVID-19 pandemic. The net effects of living during the era of the novel coronavirus have been significant. Indeed, a fair statement is that life for most people has been upended as the result of the broad array of consequences associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted those diagnosed with a substance disorder, people already dealing with substance abuse and addiction issues. In addition, there is early evidence that there has been an increase in people using mind-altering substances as a means of coping or otherwise responding to the COVID-19 epidemic and challenges associated with it (like social isolating, loss of employment, and so forth).

Authoritative resources like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, PsychU, and other agencies and organizations endeavor to keep the experts, governmental officials, and the general public as well informed as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes the PsychU panel presentation on Substance Use and the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic

The panel presentation focused on two important subjects:

  • Impact of COVID-19 pandemic in people with a substance use disorder
  • Behavioral health issues for people with substance use disorder during COVID-19 pandemic

The expert presentation was moderated by a pair of experts in the realm of substance use disorder. Rachel Self, Ph.D., is a Senior Medical Science Liaison for Otsuka Pharmaceutical Development and Commercialization. Mark Tacelosky, PharmD, is a Medical Science Liaison for Otsuka Pharmaceutical Development & Commercialization.

A pair of experts were the primary presenters in the special program. Robin Nelson, MD, is a psychiatrist at DGR Comprehensive Behavioral Health in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, as well as an attending psychiatrist at the Caron Foundation Treatment Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. Dr. Nelson received his MD from the Duke University School of Medicine. He completed his residency in the Duke University Psychiatric Residency Education Program. Dr. Nelson is board certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Roueen Rafeyan, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer for Gateway Foundation Addiction Treatment Centers He is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Dr. Rafeyan was distinguished as the Top Psychiatrist in the Nation by Consumer Reports in 2007. He is also a Distinguished Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the American Society of Addiction. Dr. Rafeyan earned his MD at Istanbul University in Turkey and completed his residency at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic in People With Substance Use Disorder

The primary impact the COVID-19 pandemic has on people with substance use disorder is lack of access to in-person treatment services. This includes inpatient and outpatient care. This is discussed in greater detail in a moment. 

Overall, when it comes to substance use, many people with abuse and addiction issues are using their substance of choice more extensively as a result of the social isolation aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The issue of guilt in regard to substance use, abuse, and addiction has come into sharper focus during the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the panelists note that a person with substance use disorder will need to go out to obtain a drug of choice (even if that is in the form or trips to liquor stores). As a result, they enhance the risk that they might spread COVID-19 to others. This reality does appear to impact people with substance use disorder. 

Guilt is great in that it modifies behavior. However, guilt can lead to self-loathing. Self-loathing, or shame, can enhance an individual’s mental health or substance use disorder issues. 

Behavioral Health Issues for People With Substance Use Disorder During COVID-19 Pandemic

Perhaps the most significant adjustment in regard to mental health and substance abuse care has been the use of telemedicine. Prior to the advent of stay at home mandates or directives associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health, and substance abuse treatment professionals did not extensively utilize telemedicine to address the needs of people with these types of issues. 

The panelists made the point that “telemedicine is okay” in the area of mental health and substance abuse and addiction. However, in the final analysis, telemedicine simply isn’t an ideal way to attempt to treat individuals with mental health conditions, substance abuse or addiction, or a dual diagnosis of both a mental health and substance abuse or addiction issue. 

A common mark of people with many types of mental health disorders and of individuals with substance use disorder have issues with isolation. Isolation in these circumstances is not helpful and oftentimes aggravates a mental health or substance use issue. Now that isolation is “mandatory,” many people with mental health conditions or substance use disorder are being even more negatively impacted being away from people.

Accessing treatment is far more difficult at this juncture in time, even with the broader use of telemedicine. Before the social isolation mandates associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, it took about a day for a person to be processed for admission into a treatment program. According to the panelists, the admission process can now take up to a week. 

Simply, even if a person desires to seek help, that individual will have a challenge getting it. 

Ultimately, a safe environment in the brick and mortar world is vital for staff and patients. Mental health and substance abuse and addiction treatment is best accomplished when professionals and patients interact in person.

Mental health professionals and drug treatment specialists need to be highly proactive to more broadly reopen their associated facilities sooner rather than later, according to the panelists. At the heart of that endeavor is to ensure that a proactive, comprehensive COVID-19 contamination prevention and rapid remediation protocols are in place. 

Of course, maintaining a COVID-19 free environment is vital to protect the physical health and welfare of treaters and patients alike. Using the services of a COVID-19 cleaning company heightens a sense of peace of mind for patients. When patients know that a treatment location is being professionally maintained by a reputable coronavirus cleaning and disinfection company, they will be far more likely to return to a treatment setting or start treatment in the first instance during the COVID-19 pandemic.