The Effect of COVID-19 on Substance Use Recovery Public Policy

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Amid a pandemic, policymakers are tasked with balancing the needs of the public with the potential for harm. This is particularly challenging when it comes to substance use and addiction, where there is already a great deal of stigma and misunderstanding. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, recovery advocates have been working to ensure that people with substance use disorders are not left behind in the response effort.

The Effects of COVID-19 on People in Recovery

The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly impacted people in recovery from substance use disorders. In addition to the stress and anxiety of any global health crisis, people in recovery face unique challenges that can jeopardize their sobriety.

Isolation and social distancing measures, for example, can trigger those in early recovery. For people who have been sober for some time, the pandemic may bring up old traumas and memories associated with using substances. And for everyone in recovery, the stress of the pandemic can be a temptation to relapse.

Advocates’ Concerns About the Response to COVID-19

Advocates for people in recovery have been raising alarms about the potential negative consequences of the coronavirus pandemic on those with substance use disorders. One major concern is that people who use drugs will be criminalized or incarcerated for possession during the outbreak. This is a legitimate concern, given that law enforcement has been cracking down on drug use during previous outbreaks, such as the AIDS epidemic.

Another concern is that people in recovery cannot access the treatment and support they need during the pandemic. This includes inpatient and outpatient treatment programs, 12-step meetings, and peer support groups. With many of these resources shutting down or going virtual, there is a risk that people in recovery will not be able to get the help they need.

Finally, advocates are worried that the economic fallout from the pandemic will lead to an increase in substance use. This is because financial stress is one of the most common triggers for relapse. With so many people losing their jobs or experiencing other economic hardships, there is a real risk that more people will turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

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Changes in Policy Related to Substance Use and Addiction

The good news is that there have been several policy changes related to substance use and recovery since the pandemic began.  Here are some of the most significant developments:

Expanded Access to Telehealth Services

One of the most important policy changes related to substance use and recovery during the pandemic has been the expansion of access to telehealth services. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has issued several guidance documents that have made it easier for providers to offer telehealth services to people with substance use disorders.

These changes have made it possible for people in recovery to access the care they need from the comfort and safety of their own homes. And for people who live in rural or underserved areas, telehealth can be a lifeline to treatment and support services.

Increase in Funding for Treatment and Recovery Services

The pandemic has also led to an increase in funding for treatment and recovery services. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress allocated an additional $4 billion in funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

This funding is being used to expand access to treatment and recovery services for people with substance use disorders, including telehealth. The additional funding is also being used to support prevention and education efforts related to substance use and addiction.

Efforts to Address the Opioid Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already serious problem of opioid addiction in the United States. In response, the administration has taken several steps to address the opioid crisis, including:

  • Providing $1.5 billion in funding to support treatment and recovery services.
  • Making it easier for patients to access medication-assisted treatment (MAT).
  • Expanding access to naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose.
  • Launching a public awareness campaign about the dangers of opioids.

The administration has also worked to improve data collection on opioid overdoses and to increase access to treatment for pregnant women and new mothers with substance use disorders.

The Future of Substance Use and Recovery Policy in the Wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic

It is still too early to tell what the long-term effect of the COVID-19 pandemic will be on substance use and recovery policy. However, the pandemic has brought about some much-needed changes, including expanded access to telehealth services and increased funding for treatment and recovery services. Looking ahead, it’s clear that the pandemic will continue to shape substance use and recovery policy for years.

In the short term, we need to do everything we can to reduce the harm caused by the pandemic, including expanding access to treatment and recovery services. We also need to rethink our approach to Substance Use Disorder (SUD) prevention, as traditional programs are often inaccessible or ineffective in times of crisis.

In the long term, we need to build a more resilient system better equipped to weather future crises. This means investing in evidence-based programs that address the root causes of SUD, such as poverty and trauma. It also means ensuring everyone has access to quality mental health care and addiction services. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a tragedy. But it has also highlighted the shortcomings of our current system and the need for transformative change.

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