People with substance abuse among the most vulnerable during pandemic

9-Apr-2020 1:25 PM EDT, by Texas State University

Newswise — As the COVID-19 pandemic has rattled routines for both urban and rural residents, one group is fighting to gain ground while facing widespread shelter-in-place directives.

Dr. Ron Williams, Jr., associate professor in Texas State University’s Department of Health and Human Performance, is keeping a close eye on how the pandemic affects people who suffer from substance abuse disorders. “People who deal with substance disorders are definitely among a vulnerable group,” Williams said. “Cardio and respiratory issues are common issues for smokers who have some respiratory damage. People who use methamphetamine also have respiratory co-morbidity.”

One situation that often exacerbates many substance abuse issues is social isolation. “Social isolation is difficult on people in recovery,” Williams said. “For a lot of people, social isolation was linked to substance abuse before the pandemic. We are likely to see an increase in substance use disorders. Are people going to have access to the same healthcare services?”

 As people cope with social isolation, the development of smartphones, social media platforms and other communication avenues during the last decade have helped lessen the impact of isolation. “That is definitely a benefit of the time we are living in,” Williams said. “You can eliminate social isolation to a degree. A lot of local places are offering online group sessions. Social support is quite often an overlooked issue. Social support often becomes an important influence on recovery.”

Trying to gauge the pandemic's impact on sufferers of substance use disorder, the population as a whole and the healthcare system is a long-term proposition. “I don't know that we will know the impact for months or years,” Williams said. “As we have seen with every major economic downturn over history, they tend to lead to an increase in substance use as a coping mechanism.”

Much of Williams' research has to do with behavior. One of his current research interests is seeing the impact on people with substance use disorder who test positive for COVID-19. Is there going to be a higher mortality rate? “I don't think we have dealt with anything close to this,” Williams said.

One challenge within recovery involves trying to maintain a routine. As those daily routines have been turned upside down, Texas State faculty members have aimed to keep continuity in instruction through various methods – including mentoring each other when possible. “A lot of colleagues and I have moved classes and shared resources,” Williams said. “Teachers who have experience doing distance education are helping those who do not. Everyone is reacting on the fly.”

That has included spring university ceremonies being canceled and spring graduates being afforded the chance to participate in August commencement ceremonies. “It's challenging,” Williams said. “It's the new normal. My colleagues and I get frustrated. But we are not doing this for us. We are doing it for our students and their next steps. These are the cards we have been dealt.”

As sufferers of substance use disorder access telemedicine and other remote health resource options, Williams advises individuals and family members to keep tabs on insurance company policies connected to what is covered via treatment options and what is not. 

Within the scheduling and treatment adjustments, there is an obstacle that substance use disorder sufferers may continue to face: the stigma sometimes attached to treatment. “One of the things people in recovery deal with is the stigma of being in recovery,” Williams said. “That will be one of the issues going forward. “Is there going to be a stigma? Are they going to be able to receive compassionate care?”

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