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COVID-19 Crisis Heightens Substance Use Concerns — But There May Be Positives

Struggling with stress, isolation and economic upheaval
Kristen Uroda for NPR
Struggling with the stress, isolation and economic upheaval of the COVID-19 crisis? Guests on Tuesday's "St. Louis on the Air" offered some words of wisdom.

The current era of social isolation and job loss is challenging for most everyone. But for people with a substance use disorder or who are in recovery, the COVID-19 crisis can present even more difficulties.

Daily life in the age of coronavirus is riddled with stressors, and stress can lead to an increase in substance use — as well as the possibility of relapse for those working to stay sober. And while virtual versions of critical support systems are still possible in many cases, face-to-face accountability and social opportunities are indeed diminished.

But along with those concerns, there’s also reason for hope. Jenny Armbruster of the St. Louis-based organization NCADA sees what she’s described as some “unintended positive side effects” of all of this, too.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, she joined host Sarah Fenske to talk about substance use disorder, relapse and having tough conversations in the midst of COVID-19 upheaval.

“There have been obstacles as we’ve transitioned many things very quickly,” Armbruster said in reference to telehealth and other virtual resources that are becoming go-tos these days for NCADA and its partner organizations. “But definitely there are some opportunities and some real push to move things in ways that we’ve thought about before but haven’t always felt compelled or the immediacy to do so.”

The broadcast included comments from several local people who are in long-term recovery, such as Farmington, Missouri, native Jordan Hampton. He works as a certified peer specialist with the Archway Institute. Jordan, 29, faced an intense battle with addiction from his late teens until about age 25, when he found much-needed support from a recovery community after moving back to his hometown. Hampton said he sees the pandemic as a chance to work on truly “being still.”

“[Staying at home] was a good chance for me to kind of park and make sure that my side of the street is cleaned up and it’s edged and it’s looking nice and it’s feeling nice,” he explained. “So I would say that was a big thing for me, is just kinda going back through scripture and my small groups and getting up at the same time for church and doing it virtually and just kind of all of those things.

“I’ve kept that alive, and I go to Narcotics Anonymous and staying close to some of those meetings. Obviously a lot of the gyms are closed, but it’s given me a chance to run outside and, you know, kind of feel connected more to my neighborhood.”

Colton Baker, one of the people that Hampton credits with helping him greatly along his road to recovery, also shared reflections with St. Louis on the Air. Baker is a lead recovery coach who works with a couple different organizations in the region and is in long-term recovery himself from opoid, benzodiazepine and other substance use. He noted that access to housing was particularly important in his own journey, and he confirmed that those services are still available in the age of COVID-19.

Baker added that one of his biggest concerns now is whether people have the accountability they need in recovery, and he feels fortunate to have a strong support system.

“It’s times like these where individuals in long-term recovery can lean on those supports,” he explained. “It’s typically the individuals who are new to recovery that I worry most about, just because they don’t have the cemented social support networks that they need at that time.”

Jenny Armbruster with NCADA
Credit Jenny Armbruster
Jenny Armbruster is the deputy executive director of NCADA, which was orignally known as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse when it was first founded in 1965.

Armbruster echoed that point, and said this is definitely an important time for everyone to reach out and connect with friends and family members who may be struggling.

When Fenske asked about some of the red, or at least yellow, flags for people to keep an eye out for among loved ones, Armbruster offered several examples of the kinds of things that suggest at least a conversation is in order.

“I would say [it’s time to talk] if substance use has become their primary what we call ‘coping mechanism’ or way to handle stress, if it’s their go-to thing, and we see it being used more and more,” she said. “It’s difficult when we’re talking about substance use, because there are so many variables here, whether we’re talking genetics [or] other factors that lead to some people being able to maybe use a substance and then some people really struggling with a substance use disorder.

“So watching for those shifts, watching for those times when it becomes the primary way to handle stress, or the use increases. And that doesn’t have to be a drastic increase ... it can be incremental and happen over time.”

Watching for withdrawal symptoms is important as well, as is keeping a lookout for instances when someone has voiced a decision not to drink or use in a specific context — but then still does so.

“Not being able to maintain those boundaries that a person sets for themselves can be a sign of [the need for closer attention],” Armbruster said.

Joy, a listener in St. Louis, offered her suggestions for good ways to cope during these challenging times.

“I have realized,” she wrote on Facebook, “that I need to 1) laugh (“Complete Works of Winnie the Pooh” by A. A. Milne), 2) hear beauty (poetry, Bible), 3) get in nature, 4) keep moving (6ft away running with a friend), 5) connect (talk to someone from my family or a friend every day) 6) plan for each day (and I'm not naturally a planner), 7) get accountability (going on a sugar fast with friends), and 8) sing!”

Lisa, in Ballwin, called in to share her own journey. She described herself as “a grateful member” of Alcoholics Anonymous who has been sober for 12 years. She encouraged people to check out aastl.org as a resource.

“It’s changed my life, [and] I lost my daughter to the disease of addiction five years ago,” Lisa said on air. “And I just want to say it’s a hard thing to go through, but I have been able to say sober, even after that.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.