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Substance use disorder researchers told Business Insider that the trauma of a pandemic may cause a spike in addiction.
A 2008 analysis published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the hospitalization rate for alcohol use disorders rose 35% in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
"9/11 and Katrina were still kind of geographically limited," Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, of the National Institutes of Health, told Business Insider. But with COVID-19, "it's everywhere pretty much at the same time."
Runs on liquor stores and a surge in alcohol deliveries demonstrate that many are turning to an old form of over-the-counter anxiety relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Who hasn't at least considered reaching for a bottle? And that, experts tell Business Insider, could lead to a sharp rise in substance abuse.
Past crises suggest that the trauma of this moment will be with us for years, the ways we cope with it potentially serving as another source of grief — and another stressor on a tottering health care system.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "survivors were smoking cigarettes, consuming alcohol, and experiencing alcohol consumption-related problems at a substantially higher rate," according to a 2006 study by researchers at the University of South Carolina.
"People are dealing with trauma and stress," Dr. Adam Leventhal, the founding director of the Health, Emotion, & Addiction Laboratory at the University of Southern California, told Business Insider, "and we know that other stressors and traumatic incidents — other types of disasters — have led people to increase their substance use,."
A spokesperson for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, which operates a free 24/7 hotline offering information and treatment referrals for those struggling with drugs and alcohol, told Business Insider that, "anecdotally," call volume "hasn't seen changes from the norm in recent weeks."
But, if past is prologue, the impact of what happens today, when a dependency begins, will not be fully visible for some time.
By 2008, three years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the hospitalization rate for substance use disorders in Louisiana had shot up by more than 35% compared to the year before the storm, per an analysis published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Experts fear that could happen again — this time on a national scale.
"The signal factor, which is to me very worrisome, is the idea that this is really a pandemic," Dr. Lorenzo Leggio, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, said in an interview. Hurricane Katrina was "still kind of geographically limited," he told Business Insider, but with COVID-19, "it's everywhere pretty much at the same time."
He likened the impact of surviving a disaster — losing friends, family, and other loved ones — to "patients who come back from a war and develop post-traumatic stress disorder." Many, in addition to PTSD, "will also develop, some of them, but a significant amount of them, addiction, including alcohol use disorder," Leggio said.
But trauma won't just cause abuse down the line; it will also cause some to relapse, today, and others to maintain a dependency they no longer have the willingness or ability to kick. And now is a particularly unfortunate time to suppress the immune system.
One dependency, also, can encourage another.
"Roughly 50% of people with alcohol-use disorder, they also smoke," Leggio said. "So they also have chronic pulmonary problems, and so they're even more prone to develop the more complicated medical symptoms of COVID-19, including respiratory failure."
It's "a vicious cycle," he said.
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