The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted America in many ways, some of which were almost impossible to predict. The substance abuse treatment industry was certainly unprepared, and it wasn’t until the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration issued recommendations for how treatment facilities should handle this crisis that anyone knew how to proceed.
Many drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers have struggled during these times, seeing clients leave and no new people coming in, adding pressure to an already weakened industry. Many have turned to alternative ways to stay in business and continue to help service all the people who need it, such as telehealth. Telehealth is the use of electronic information and telecommunications technologies to support long-distance clinical health care, patient, health-related education, and public health. But the coronavirus pandemic is stoking the flames of America’s drug epidemic, turning a situation that’s already bad into something far worse.
America’s drug problems haven’t been in the news much lately because everything has been about COVID-19. But what isn’t getting reported is that the collision of these two public health catastrophes hasn’t been playing out well. People who were in recovery are relapsing, and people who didn’t have issues with substance abuse have become dependent on drugs and alcohol during this time of stress and quarantine. It’s become funny to joke about drinking all day while in isolation. People are struggling financially and have little to do but sit at home and worry. So, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen alcohol sales spike and drug overdose death rates surge. But are these people getting help?
Some of them are. Every state has issued different regulations for how business entities can operate during these times. Some facilities have remained open, others have turned to telehealth models to comply with social distancing guidelines. And other facilities haven’t fared well, losing what little clientele they had since people are hesitant to enter a group setting. But an entire industry has been operating on a group, often residential model which isn’t fit to withstand a continued threat like COVID-19. And that’s just the problem.
Studies are now suggesting that COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It may even be here for as long as another two years or more! If things continue this way, there may be no more treatment industry left to treat the overwhelming population that will need these services. Thankfully, technology has provided us some tools we can use.
Telehealth is an up and coming practice which has been utilized among doctors and mental health professionals but hasn’t gotten legs yet in the field of addiction. This lack of traction is mainly due to insurance companies not being willing to pay for the service, which severely limits its scope. A big reason for this may be that face to face interaction is key to substance abuse treatment. Without it, it becomes impossible to screen for drugs and observe specific indicators of drug abuse.
The face to face interaction of modern treatment also requires the patient to leave the environment where they use drugs, whether it be for a single session or an entire treatment stay. This separation has an essential therapeutic value that cannot be overlooked. In light of the pandemic, many insurance providers have begun to allow telehealth coverage. This is a noble gesture that shows that any treatment is better than none. As treatment providers adapt and begin to offer telehealth services, they have to invest in expensive equipment like computers, cameras, and software. Already struggling financially, many can’t make this adjustment. But for those who can, attitudes are somewhere between excited and concerned.
The need for treatment is there, but counselors who employ telehealth services are noticing very low attendance at “group” sessions. Apparently, the convenience and ease of being able to go to treatment from your couch doesn’t make the prospect more appealing. It’s doubtful that telehealth alone will be the solution to the future for drug rehabilitation. While it indeed may be implemented moving forward, it’s not a replacement for being able to go away, stay somewhere that’s drug-free, and supportive with other people doing the same thing.
Perhaps a blend of services, with obvious increased precautions taken for COVID-19, is what’s necessary. The government will probably need to step in and prop up even private treatment centers, as subsidized ones come nowhere close to meeting the current demand, let alone the one that will exist after the pandemic. Regardless of how much longer the coronavirus stays here, we’re on the verge of seeing significant changes in our society’s approach to drug and alcohol rehabilitation.
Joseph Kertis is an experienced healthcare professional turned journalist. His experience in the field of substance abuse and addiction recovery provides a unique insight into one of our Nation’s most challenging epidemics. He utilizes this knowledge in his writing to give an expert viewpoint that spreads awareness through education. He is a featured author of the healthcare website Addicted.org.