How COVID Impacted Addiction Rates

The stress caused by COVID-19 has impacted many aspects of society, including mental health and addiction. To date, more than 1,188,000 people in the United States have died since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020. Worldwide, the number of COVID-19 deaths as of March 31, 2024 is estimated to be over 7 million, with nearly 775 million confirmed cases.

Following the outbreak of the pandemic, many countries, including the US, enacted major public safety measures. These included temporary shutdowns of non-essential services, social distancing, isolating sick or exposed individuals, and many more unprecedented changes to daily life.

Following the onset of the pandemic, the US saw record-breaking drug and alcohol overdoses. In just one year, the overall drug overdose death rate skyrocketed, from 21.6 to 32.4 per 100,000, or an increase of nearly 50%. Rates of fatal alcohol overdoses saw a similar increase, roughly 38%, with rates the highest and increasing the fastest among American Indian Alaska Native (AIAN) people. AIAN people died of alcohol-induced causes at a rate of 91.7 per 100,000 in 2021, six times more than the next highest group – Hispanic people at a rate of 13.6.

For those with existing substance use disorders, the pandemic exacerbated existing substance abuse, and many people spiraled deeper into addiction. For those that turned to drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, many saw themselves facing addiction for the first time.

Mental Health And COVID-19

Addiction was not the only mental health concern on the rise following the COVID-19 pandemic. Rates of anxiety and depression symptoms had increased by nearly 300% from 2019 to 2021. Additionally, concerns about suicidal ideation and suicide deaths have also grown following the pandemic. In 2021, 30% of adolescent females seriously considered attempting suicide, compared with 14% of adolescent males. Overall, after seeing steady decline in the years leading up to the pandemic, deaths by suicide increased greatly, reaching over 50,000 in 2023; the highest of any year on record.

As a result of many of the changes brought about by the pandemic, millions of people began experiencing new or renewed feelings of anxiety, stress, depression, and isolation. In 2021, 4 in 10 adults were reported to be showing anxiety or depression symptoms, up from just 1 in 10 the year before. As anxiety surrounding a new, unknown virus increased, so too did the use of alcohol and other substances as a coping method.

In 2023, 50% of young adults (ages 18-24) reported anxiety and depression symptoms, making them more likely than older adults to experience mental health symptoms. Young adults face many COVID-related challenges, such as closures of universities, transitioning to remote work, loss of income or employment, or the loss of a family member due to COVID-19 – all of which may lead to mental health conditions.

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How COVID Impacted Addiction Treatment

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unknown nature of the virus coupled with widespread fear and newly enacted laws made finding, and attending, treatment centers difficult. Social distancing, lack of access to vaccines, and restrictions on size of gatherings meant that many treatment centers were forced to close down, operate at lower capacity, or reduce their hours of operation.

Fortunately, as time has passed and the pandemic has subsided, treatment centers are back to operating virtually as they were before. While some centers may still be taking precautions like mask wearing or smaller group sizing, most have resumed pre-COVID treatment practices.

Because of how infectious COVID-19 is, some might feel that staying home and social distancing is the best way to keep themselves safe. In general, this is true but for those struggling with addiction, seeking treatment should be the top priority. Isolation and loneliness may trigger relapse or substance use which can lead to fatal outcomes as an addiction gets progressively worse.

Rehab facilities are doing all they can to comply with current CDC COVID-19 guidelines to create a safe and comfortable environment for treatment.

COVID’s Impact On The Mental Health Conversation

If there were any “benefits” of the COVID-19 pandemic, one would surely be the impact it has had on the conversation surrounding mental health. As millions of Americans began struggling, many for the first time, with mental health issues, people began turning toward outlets like social media, online support groups, and other outlets for answers and support.

As more people started to look for answers, conversations about mental health began to become more commonplace. Firstly, the widespread impacts of COVID-19 resulted in more open public dialogue and awareness of mental health than ever before. Additionally, the pandemic also normalized these conversations, and helped mainline issues like stress, depression, anxiety, and isolation.

The COVID-19 pandemic also made it possible for society to ignore racial disparities in how people of color experience and receive mental health conditions and services. Due to a variety of cultural, societal, and economic reasons, people of color have a harder time finding a provider in their neighborhoods. Additionally, mental health practitioners who do not accept health insurance often refrain from setting up practices in areas where individuals cannot afford to pay the full cost of the visit upfront. This results in a scarcity of providers in communities that are disproportionately disadvantaged and have lower incomes.

With advances in telehealth and online therapy services seeing a boom during the pandemic, individuals that may have otherwise found it difficult to find mental health services were able to do so from the comfort of their own home. Telehealth and online therapy also made it possible for individuals to access mental health care providers who would have otherwise not been available in their area, especially those who may accept their insurance.

While these issues have been far from solved, the importance of highlighting these issues means that society can start to address these disparities and provide people with the help and services they need.

Finding Help Post-COVID

If you or someone you know is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, please contact a treatment provider to learn more about how rehab works, how you can pay for it, and where you can go to get started.