One thing that has made treating the novel coronavirus so challenging for medical professionals is the wise range of symptoms patients are reporting. Beyond the flu-like symptoms that we first associated with the disease, people have experienced everything from fevers to losing their sense of smell.

There’s another symptom that’s growing, and while it isn’t caused by the disease’s physical effects, it’s tied to the emotions people are feeling as we experience the pandemic. Mental health professionals have been watching an increase in substance abuse and addiction, and most of us anticipate the increase will continue in the coming months.

We’re all aware of how COVID-19 has affected our lives and those around us, and one of the most obvious effects is increases in depression and anxiety. As we talk with friends and colleagues, we hear everything from frustration to sad resignation with the life changes the pandemic has triggered. One of the biggest effects has been an increased sense of social isolation. We don’t get to interact with others like we did before, and when we do encounter one another, it’s through strange protocols involving masks and physical distance.

We’ve all heard what people are doing to make themselves feel better and try to brush off those bleak feelings. Some people have focused on gardening and other hobbies. Some confess to gaining weight thanks to all-day eating. And for people who have the disease of addiction, the strategy may be to have a drink. And then another. Or they might begin to abuse drugs. Some may seek the connection (though false) from porn. Other’s may begin shopping for that quick feel good moment.

The problem is even more concerning for people who are in recovery. Most of their safety nets have been eliminated because of COVID-19. Without being able to attend meetings, they lose those vital connections with sober peers who can support their efforts and watch for signs of trouble. They may not have access to their normal services and treatments.

Perhaps the most chilling side effect of isolation is an increase in overdose deaths. Users who had learned techniques to reduce the potential of overdose, such as always having someone to watch over them when they use, may now being using alone, with no one to call 911 or administer naloxone if they overdose.

There are medical concerns, too. People with addictions may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 and experience more severe effects from it because of the social factors such as being homeless, having had severe health problems, or not having access to health insurance.

Church leaders and care teams can help those they serve by becoming aware of symptoms of addiction and relapse. Church members who are in recovery may also need more attention than normal. We may have to maintain physical distance but finding ways to keep people socially connected is essential to keeping some sober, and others from returning to old habits.

Our team of professional counselors can support your efforts to help members. We can also educate you and your staff about the nature and symptoms of addiction, so you can overcome common misunderstandings. Please let us know how we can help, and together, we’ll make a difference in families.

Sarah Barksdale is one of Care to Change’s newest team members. A pastors wife and therapist, she has worked with teens, young married couples, parents, and those struggling with addiction.

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