Drug and alcohol use has spiked during pandemic, prompting Chicago’s recovery community to find new ways to reach out

The pandemic has proven to be a difficult time for addicts. With persisting unemployment rates and surging reports of anxiety and depression nationwide, alcohol consumption and opioid use have skyrocketed among users who have found themselves stuck inside day after day.

But support is still available. Over the past few months, recovery groups and treatment centers throughout the Chicago area have learned to adapt their services to the shifting restrictions of the pandemic.

Katie Minarcik, a manager at the Chicago chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous, said about 100 socially distanced in-person AA meetings have gradually returned to the Cook County area.

The vast majority of members from their more than 2,900 weekly meetings, though, have adjusted to convening virtually by Zoom or phone call.

“There was one celebration through Zoom where they made little graphics and fireworks and put the coin up on the screen and made it into this virtual celebration,” said Minarcik. “So they’re still capturing the energy.”

Minarcik said the creativity of virtual members has been vital in the digital meeting process, as an influx in attendants over the past six weeks has led to an increased number of milestones to celebrate and support.

“In the beginning, it was everyone trying to figure out how to stay connected. But now as it’s gone on, our phones have been busier than usual,” Minarcik said. “We’re just seeing a bunch of new people finding us through this. They were already at that jumping-off point, but this stressor of the pandemic maybe is what catalyzed them to do something different.”

While some are beginning their journey to sobriety during the pandemic, others already in recovery are working to stay clean in virtual or socially distanced formats.

Lucy Smith, an alumni coordinator and recovering addict at the Gateway Foundation drug and alcohol treatment center in Aurora, emphasized how important it is for people in recovery to continue attending 12-step meetings.

“It’s a necessity — meetings are a necessity,” Smith said. She started her position as a coordinator in late February, and has since been committed to making meetings available to her clients and community amid the changing restrictions of the pandemic.

“We have 24-hour meeting (availability) through Zoom. We’re meeting in parking lots, we’re meeting in the park — wherever we need to meet to continue that,” said Smith. If members are unable to attend socially distanced outdoor meetings, attendees will bring computers so everyone can still call in and see one another.

“We’re bringing the Zoom meetings to the meetings so that nobody is left out,” said Smith.

But despite increasing attendance in virtual meetings, Smith noted that the loneliness of quarantine is taking its toll on her community.

“We’re also seeing a huge increase in relapse,” Smith said. “And not just newcomers, but people who have, like, 10, 15, 20 years (of being clean) are relapsing due to the isolation and being made to stay home.”

Tom Britton, president of the Chicago-based treatment center Gateway Foundation and himself in long-term recovery, agreed.

“Social isolation is the core piece,” Britton said. “And when you’re using, you have your using network; and when you suddenly stop, you have no network.”

In response, Gateway has taken some tips from social media. It has recently launched a mobile app called Gateway Connect, meant to ensure that all patients and alumni have a positive support network in their pocket, available at all times.

“You can get it from the App Store. It’s similar to Facebook in the sense that it’s a social connection platform,” Britton said. “And it is specific to people in recovery who’ve gone through the Gateway program.”

Mercedes Kent, a clinical supervisor at the Gateway’s Springfield outpatient center and alumna of the Gateway program, found the app to be a helpful way to connect with like-minded members. She, for example, prefers to start her day with personal meetings at 6:30 a.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.

The app “helps us connect with those people that are early birds,” Kent said. “It’s a good way to start the day, (and) I stay very connected with alumni.”

Despite the specific challenges the pandemic has posed for addicts, Kent said she believes the need for virtual support spurred by the pandemic will ultimately broaden Gateway’s ability to serve those who need it.

“If there’s one silver lining about the pandemic, it’s that it forced us to do this platform for the telehealth,” Kent said. “It provides resources and access to services that patients may not have had before, whether it be due to transportation issues or not having those services available in their area, as well as those that have health conditions that don’t want to put themselves (at risk).”

The pandemic has created different obstacles for inpatient treatment centers, which qualify as essential health care providers and can still provide face-to-face services.

Despite moving most of its outpatient services to virtual formats — with a nearly 90% retention rate — the Rosecrance treatment centers of Chicago and Rockford have seen declining use of in-person residential services.

“People are afraid of getting COVID, so they don’t want to live with other people, and we understand that,” said Dr. Thomas Wright, chief medical officer at Rosecrance. “But we’ve been doing a lot of enhanced sanitation, we’ve been testing everybody ... and we’ve not had a single case of COVID transmitted between our residents once they get there.”

The domino effects of unemployment could also mean fewer people can afford inpatient services, Wright said.

“There are (tens of millions) of people unemployed, and I’m sure they no longer have insurance,” Wright said. “So not having insurance, or not having coverage for medical treatment, is keeping people from looking for help sometimes.”

The widening gulf between increasing substance abuse and decreasing inpatient services concerns Wright, who said he fears people who could benefit from in-person treatment may think such services are unavailable during the pandemic.

“Certainly drug use and alcohol use (are) going up, and suicidal behavior and suicides have gone up,” he said. “People need to know that everybody’s still open for services, and we’ll do what we need in order to keep you safe.”

Help remains available by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline, 800-662-4357. And Chicago organizations such as Howard Brown Health and Haymarket Center offer discounted services for patients with low income and a variety of group meetings.

And with a COVID-19 vaccine still nonexistent for the foreseeable future, the pandemic cannot keep people from accessing the treatment they need, Wright said.

“Nobody could wait that long to get a significant mental health or substance abuse issue treated,” he said. “So, you know, I just encourage people to get off the block.”



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