Breaking the Stigma of Addiction During the Pandemic

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By Patty Bell, Family Relations Manager and Interventionist, Capo by the Sea

Whether the change of heart is compassion-driven or due to a sudden awareness of our own mortality, the reason doesn’t really matter. The point is that slowly but surely we are breaking the stigma of addiction during the pandemic.

The social stigma that has glommed on to individuals suffering from these afflictions is hopefully lifting. As the founder of an addiction recovery complex it is painful to witness so much suffering, not only among the addicted but also among their family members. Addiction impacts a huge number of people beyond the addict—to their family, friends, coworkers, and society at large. You would think that a public health issue this significant would be at the top of the social health priority list, yet there never seems to be the necessary resources to make any significant change in outcomes.

Real change rests on the elimination of shame and guilt that keeps the addicted individual stuck in their disease. Stigma leads to marginalization, which leads to isolation and loneliness, which culminates in a deepening sickness. But breaking the stigma of addiction during the pandemic will hopefully lead to more awareness, increased compassion, and more resources to make a real difference as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. The virus has had an equalizing effect, as suddenly we are all vulnerable to an invisible disease laying waste to our health, finances, and future. All our lives matter, every living being has value. Maybe there will be a silver lining to the coronavirus pandemic if a reduction in stigma is sustained.

Substance Use Disorders and Mental Health in the Spotlight

It is almost surreal, having so much attention being paid to substance abuse and mental health over the mainstream media lately. Not a week goes by that a report on increased drug and alcohol consumption or a spike in depression isn’t mentioned on network or cable news stations. It is a sad fact that a sharp increase in alcohol consumption has been developing since the lockdown policies were instituted. News reports that alcohol sales have increased by 55%, according to a data report by Nielsen, and that online alcohol sales have risen a whopping 243%, should be concerning for all Americans.

Whatever stressors or psychological issues lead people to misuse alcohol or drugs in normal times seem to be accentuated now during the pandemic. Living in near isolation for two months has bred loneliness and boredom. When added to the rising unemployment numbers and complete uncertainty about the future, it is clear why this highly stressful situation leads to self-medicating.

Thankfully, people are talking about the problem of substance use and mental illness more openly these days. There are abundant social media discussions and groups that are solely dedicated to discussing the impact of the pandemic on people who battle these afflictions. The more open discussion that takes place, the more that stigma retreats into its own dark corner. Being upfront about it—how vulnerable many people are to developing a substance use disorder—opens the door to compassion and understanding…and hopefully to more people getting the help they need.

Taking the First Step to Help Someone Get Treatment

It’s all well and good to see empathy expressed over the media toward people suffering from addiction, that is a great start. But unless that is converted to real action then nothing will ever change. From the vantage point of an addiction recovery professional, the most important message I can impart is to be proactive if you suspect your loved one, or you yourself, is acquiring a substance problem. The sooner treatment is initiated, the better the chances are for a complete recovery.

So how does someone convince a loved one to get help? This is the most challenging aspect of all, since most addicts are not at all interested in giving up their substance of choice—at least not yet. And while you cannot force an adult to get treatment, there are still seeds to plant that might begin the recovery thought process. Consider these actions:

  • Check in with them. Although you highly suspect that your friend or family member is struggling with a deepening substance abuse problem, they may think they have you fooled. People will go to great lengths to hide their substance use issue. Find an appropriate moment to simply ask them if they are doing okay during the COVID-19 event. Ask if they need anything. Ask them if you can help them in any way. This gives them the sense that someone cares about them, and helps establish trust. Who knows, maybe they will open up about their problem.
  • Start educating yourself. If you suspect someone you care about is succumbing to addiction take this time to become informed. Check out the different types of rehabs, such as outpatient or residential programs. Get educated about the signs of addiction, about the detox process, and how addiction is treated. If it is a close family member, check with their insurance provider to learn what is covered and the estimated out of pocket expense.
  • Be ready to support them. If the person you care about is concerned about a growing dependence on alcohol or drugs, be ready to step up and support them. This doesn’t mean financial support, but instead refers to offering to be by their side at an intake interview or to help them narrow down treatment options. They may want to check out an online A.A. meeting but need some help locating one. Just be there for them.

Rehab During the Pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic residential rehab programs have continued to receive new patients. Facilities are taking great care to enforce all CDC safety guidelines to protect both clients and staff. Outpatient treatment is being provided via online therapy sessions through software programs like Zoom, Skype, or Google Meet. If you or a loved one is in need of help for a substance use disorder, do not wait until the virus has subsided, as that could be a very long while. Remember that the sooner treatment is obtained, the better the clinical outcome. So, kick stigma to the curb and step up for your loved one, pandemic or not. Stigma can’t hold a candle to sincere compassion.

About the Author

Patty Bell is the Family Relations Manager and Interventionist of Capo By the Sea, a luxury addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program located in South Orange County, California. After her own successful experience with the recovery process and journey, Patty is dedicated to work with clients in creating a unique program that is individualized for each client’s specific treatment needs.  Patty’s passion to share her own positive experience with others, while being a living example of the freedom found in recovery, is what motivates her to guide clients toward their own stable, long-term recovery.