Support programs adapt to increased rates of addiction as a result of COVID-19

Substance abuse and addiction have escalated since the beginning of COVID-19, leading to an increase of people reaching out for help to multiple support groups in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

Kitchener-Waterloo Alcoholics Anonymous has reported going through 10 times over their initial budget to keep up with the influx of needed support, as COVID-19 continues to persist.

Bill O’Leary, a new member of Wilfrid Laurier University’s Faculty of Social Work, has a background working in the health sector with mental health and substance abuse as his specialty. He states the impact that COVID-19 has had on addiction and how support groups have adapted to these unprecedented circumstances: 

“The pandemic has in some ways slowed down avenues and sources of help, like places to get an assessment and treatment, the longer waitlists and barriers in terms of connecting,” O’Leary said.

Although COVID-19 has challenged individuals struggling with addiction to receive help through resources that require in-person attendance, online software allowing virtual meetings such as Zoom has made support groups accessible. 

“These groups pivoted very quickly early in the pandemic and started to absorb themselves into Zoom meetings, which was phenomenal. It’s meaningful to so many people that they’re able to connect to low barrier resources that have created communities for [those] whose community has been removed from them,” he said.

The wider accessibility of these programs has proven beneficial for substance abuse treatment.

“In some populations, there’s a high trauma rate attached with the alcohol and drug use where the ability to manage some of those trauma pieces by engaging online, soothes people and the amenity or the shame that’s typically attached to substance use,” O’Leary said.

Another benefit is that individuals can join groups anywhere.

“People who live [in] rural or smaller communities have realized they can meet with people online and don’t have to interact with people in their community,” he said.

With the unpredictability of restrictions regarding safety measures and lockdowns during COVID-19, a recent poll from the Angus Reid Institute reveals that 47 per cent of Canadians claim alcohol abuse is a problem within their social circles.  Three out of ten people report the same of drug use. 

This increase can be attributed to the effects COVID-19 has had on mental health.

“There’s all these buffers that we have in place in our day-to-day life, [and] a lot of them involve our interactions with others. Then some behaviours are conducive in promoting good mental health, whether that be being actively involved in social situations or simply being in a room with other people,” O’Leary said.

COVID-19 has created many unknowns and changes that, according to O’Leary, “create a higher level of stress and anxiety in people, preventing [them] from being able to visualize what their life looks like next week and the week after. These things are conducive to leading to poor mental health for all of us.”

Additionally, “if you factor in behaviours that could be alcohol and drugs or other behaviours that bring about some sort of soothing or calming effect, it serves a function,” he said.

The function of substance abuse and addiction can be various, including reducing anxiety or relieving stress.

“The function serves as an important one, and if you either want to reduce or stop your alcohol or drug use, it’s still important that you meet that function,” O’Leary said.

Even though COVID-19 has tested support programs and their ability to respond to people in need of help, there are numerous resources available if you or someone you know is struggling with substance or drug use during these difficult times.

“Twelve-step programs are extremely accessible. Some people may not have visualized engaging in 12 Steps activities, but in a pandemic, it’s a community that you’re engaging in. Sometimes it’s easier to engage in conversation with a community of people, and it lowers that kind of anxiety of connecting with people in person,” he said.

O’Leary also offers advice to those who may be struggling or are worried about their increase in substance or drug use.

“Tell people how you are. Maybe you’re having a drink or smoking more Marijuana than you would normally smoke. They serve a function and in some way support something you need, but it becomes a place where you might start understanding that you’re doing this more than you used to, and letting someone know what’s different in your life right now can help.”

Alcoholics Anonymous – 519-742-6183

Canadian Mental Health Association – 1-844-437-3247

Canadian Centre for Addictions – 1-855-939-1009 

ConnexOntario – 1-866-531-2600

Distress and Crisis Ontario 

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