COVID’s Impacts on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Two experts share the deep effects on those who are vulnerable and how loved ones can help lessen the negatives of the pandemic.

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The coronavirus pandemic has upended every aspect of our lives, and for those with substance use and mental health disorders — which commonly occur together — the effects can be devastating. As we all struggle to cope with the social isolation and anxiety COVID-19 has created, it’s especially important to recognize COVID’s impact on those who work to achieve strong mental health and avoid the recurrence of substance use. How can loved ones help in these challenging times?

Helping those with a substance use disorder

“A substance use disorder is a serious brain disease and individuals who are in recovery need the support of the community even more during this time,” says Christina Nicholas, director of substance use prevention and treatment services with Oakland Community Health Network.

The novel coronavirus’s impact on communities and individuals is unpredictable, but those who use alcohol or drugs are vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. In fact, the risk of contracting COVID-19 is highest among those who have had a diagnosis of substance abuse within the last year, Nicholas says.

“Substance use weakens the immune system and impacts cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Put that together with a pandemic that attacks the lungs and that puts individuals at significant risk,” she says, pointing to research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse suggesting those with a recent substance use diagnosis are 10 times more likely to have COVID-19. “The way opioids impact the brain and other organs in the body, coupled with decreased oxygen levels (from COVID-19), it’s a deadly combination,” Nicholas explains.

How COVID impacts treatment

This risk of substance use recurrence is significant for those in the first year after diagnosis because at this stage, individuals rely heavily on fellowship within the recovery community, something that’s not as accessible during COVID. While recovery support groups are considered essential and are permitted to meet in person, it’s not uncommon for host facilities to be closed or have reduced capacity, making access harder. Virtual meetings just aren’t as successful.

Oakland Community Health Network “has gone to great lengths to assist providers, who are all dedicated to making sure there is no disruption to their services,” and individuals who need treatment have still been able to be placed within 24 hours, according to Nicholas.

Helping those with a mental health disorder

The financial, educational and social impacts of COVID-19 have the potential to create a “tsunami of people with trauma issues,” says Jaimie Clayton, president and CEO of Oakland Family Services. The pandemic could amplify mental health issues, so family members should look out for dramatic behavior changes among loved ones, like self-isolating even when there are opportunities for virtual and socially distanced visits. “Kids might display regressive behavior or anger, which might be a fairly normal reaction but to what degree is it occurring?” Clayton says.

How to help? “Reach out more,” Clayton suggests. “Make the extra phone call or text, find new ways to fill the holes for socializing and connecting.” Michigan.gov/staywell has several mental health resources, including virtual support groups, text services, even access to meditation site Headspace. “Now is a time when we give the grace to recognize that not everything is the same, but don’t ignore that gut feeling if someone isn’t returning your calls. Do extra outreach to find out if they are OK.”

The Sober Support Unit in Pontiac, 1200 N. Telegraph Road, Bldg. 32E, 248-456-8144, is always open.

Oakland Community Health Network (OCHN) leads a provider service network that assists approximately 23,000 Oakland County citizens at more than 300 service sites across the county. People who receive public mental health services through OCHN’s provider network include those who have an intellectual or developmental disability, mental health challenge, or substance use disorder. The majority of these individuals have Medicaid insurance coverage. OCHN’s goal is to ensure these individuals are aware of and have access to services and supports that will improve their health and quality of life, as well as ensure their engagement in full community participation.

OCHN also manages a $300 million budget funded in part by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, General Fund, grants, and Oakland County.  

Visit OCHN at oaklandchn.org or MDHHS at michigan.gov/staywell.

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