Recovery Challenges During COVID-19
Written by Meaghan Nieman PharmD ‘21
Published on May 4, 2021
It is no secret that the coronavirus pandemic has had a big impact on our country within the past year – putting many out of work, taking many lives, and changing daily life in many ways. Over the past year, we have seen over 550,000 deaths and over 30 million total cases in the United States alone, with numbers continuing to rise. Even as the country tries to reopen, many schools, restaurants, and workplaces remain closed. In addition to the clear impact on daily living, the pandemic has posed an additional obstacle to those with mental health issues. Social distancing regulations have left people feeling isolated from friends and family and has heightened anxiety related to getting sick and taking necessary precautions to protect themselves and others.
The Center for Disease Control notes that symptoms of anxiety and depression significantly increased during the pandemic, with 40.9% of survey respondents reporting at least one mental or behavioral health condition. The main conditions noted were symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, trauma and stress related to the pandemic, or starting or increasing substance use to cope with added stress or emotions. It is noted that certain populations were affected at a greater rate, specifically young adults, people of color, essential workers, and those with preexisting psychiatric conditions. Unfortunately, certain mental illnesses such as schizoaffective disorder can also put these already disadvantaged patients at a greater risk for death due to COVID-19.
As deaths spike due to the pandemic, there is another epidemic of drug overdoses that has been overlooked recently. While there has been a 37% decrease in opioid prescriptions since 2014, the overdose deaths continue to spike due to other available drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl.
More than 19,000 people died of an overdose in the first three months of 2020, putting the U.S. on track for an all time high. Many people have turned to substances to self-medicate the additional stress posed by the pandemic. Isolation from others and financial uncertainty have also put patients who are already struggling with a substance use disorder at risk for a relapse and has increased barriers to getting help.
Part of the increase in mental health disorders may be due to the inability to access care. With offices closed and people wary of going in crowds, many people may feel reluctant to seek treatment. In addition, the support groups many people relied upon are limited with the pandemic precautions. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are expected to abide by mask wearing and social distancing policies, which may limit the amount of people at meetings and may restrict access. Drug rehabilitation programs across the country were also forced to close down or limit their operations due to financial concerns or cases of COVID-19 among staff.
While there have been many challenges throughout the past year, there have also been developments to try to help those with mental health issues. An increase in telehealth therapy and psychiatric services has tried to make care more accessible to people from home. Online support groups have also held sessions to support recovery from a distance. Some policies have changed too, including the Drug Enforcement Agency’s relaxed protocols on buprenorphine prescribing. It is now allowed to be prescribed through a telehealth evaluation to allow easier access to patients. Many states have removed prior authorization requirements for medications that help treat opioid use disorder and relaxed requirements to provide easier access to care. We must continue taking steps to understand those who suffer from mental illness or substance use disorder, and work to see how we can make it easier to reach out for help and get treatment.