While many are coping with the stress of a pandemic and quarantines, others are also struggling to maintain sobriety.
“We know isolation exacerbates addiction,” Compass Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Camis Milam said.
Compass Health has inpatient and outpatient services for those with mental health or substance abuse issues for those of all ages. As the chief medical officer, Milam works with the Friday Harbor Compass Health office as well. She explained that after a disaster, a hurricane, for example, people gather to check in with one another and help those in need. COVID does not allow for that. Although people have been sending messages of strength and unity, the lack of physical connection is difficult. As the crisis drags from one month to six, people often lose hope. As despair kicks in people who may not have had a serious drinking problem begin to develop issues.
Snohomish County, where Milam resides, has seen a significant increase in overdoses, and Washington state is reporting revenue gains from alcohol and marijuana sales tax over the last six months, she explained.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six people die every day from alcohol poisoning and 88,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes.
San Juan County Sheriff Ron Krebs said the county does not have local data on COVID and its effect on people drinking. However, when bars reopened there was a spike in cases of driving under the influence that has since leveled off, he said.
Harvey Amhood, who helps answer San Juan Islands Alcoholics Annonymous helpline noted he has seen an increase.
“What I am seeing is that we have people that are on the fence, and the kind of stress going on right now pushes them over,” Amhood said, adding that he was speaking from his own opinion and experiences, not from Alcoholics Anonymous.
“It takes a lot of hard work, you have to put the time in,” Mahood said. “But folks who have had no way of being sober on their own, are doing it.”
Milam also noted that financial stress also weighs on people, and people who have not had a problem before may have one now.
“What might have been borderline cases are now an issue,” she said.
To ensure people get the assistance they need, SJIAA set up a helpline that available 24/7 — 360-317-3832.
“What makes [AA] work is all of us being able to come together and support each other,” Mahood said. “This is a program based on love.”
During the pandemic, all meetings have had to take place online. Amhood acknowledged the benefits of continued sessions, albeit remotely.
“It isn’t the same as being in person, but at least we can all talk and share hope,” he said, adding that many have found the meetings to be more comfortable and less disruptive to their daily routines.
For councilors, virtual meetings have been primarily positive experiences, Milam said. It can be difficult for doctors to pick up small details and read body language the way they can during in-person sessions. However, providers are reporting a 95 percent attendance, according to Milam.
Due to stigma surrounding addiction, many are uncomfortable attending meetings or therapy sessions because they do not want to be seen coming or going, Milam explained. This is especially true of small towns. As a result, the convenience and confidentiality of telehealth have proven beneficial to clients.
Addictions are an issue with the brain, usually genetic, often coupled with depression, or other mental illnesses, Milam said.
“It is not a weakness,” she said. “It is not some moral failing.”
According to Milam, it does not help for family members or loved ones to cut off contact with someone struggling with alcohol addiction. However, enabling an addict is also disadvantageous. Behaviors that are considered enabling include giving the affected person money, as it becomes too easy for them to buy alcohol or drugs, or making excuses for them, Milam explained.
“What they really need is that unconditional love,” Milam said.
Milam suggested buying groceries for the person if they have lost their job, or providing limited shelter. Better yet, offer to go with them to meetings, she added.
“Not only can you support them by going, but you can learn what they are going through,” Milam said.
If someone is concerned with their own behaviors, Milam said checking in with their primary care physician can be a first step. The doctor can then refer them for treatment if needed.
A gap that Milam said she would like to see filled is for mental health and general practitioners to share information easier. Washington state has worked to increase health care access for those with substance abuse issues, as well as reduce the stigma. The state is now working to integrate healthcare making it easier for a patient’s doctors to share information.
“We are not totally aligned yet,” Milam said, explaining that primary caregivers still may not have the information needed from a patient’s substance abuse counselor in order to treat them holistically. The reason behind that stems back to the societal stigma that still surrounds substance abuse.
“These are tough times,” Milam said. “People should not feel ashamed or guilty for having a tough time.”