COVID-19 and the rising threat of substance abuse

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COVID-19 and the rising threat of substance abuse

Image by CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

By Katie Gordon, Wellness Promotion Manager, Gallogly Recreation and Wellness Center

COVID-19 has certainly impacted our daily lives and routines. For some, the stress of a busy lifestyle has been replaced by the stress of an uncertain future, boredom, isolation, financial impact and maybe even taking on new family roles such as stay-at-home parent and educator. Although this stress stems from a new cause, our bodies interpret it the same as any stressor in our pre-COVID lives. New or even no routine can be just as stressful as our old busy one. And, as humans, we are driven to find ways to feel better about our worries and fill the void left by isolation and boredom.

As a person of the current times, I have spent a lot of time on social media and have been struck by the amount of alcohol and substance related jokes and memes being spread. Reminiscent of the “Mommy Wino” memes of the past, these are all undoubtedly meant to lighten the mood and I myself have laughed at a few. However, is there not always a hint of reality in comedy? These widely spread jokes about increased and prolonged alcohol consumption made me consider the root issue: that many people are probably turning to alcohol or other substances to ease the pain, fill the void and make life a little more fun.

I wanted to take a dive into why people use substances when they are stressed out, and what are the implications for people who currently have or have had problematic substance use. I recruited two experts on substance use: Dr. Debby Patz, a staff psychologist at the UCCS Wellness Center and Ray Fisco, a prevention specialist at the Office of the Dean of Students. Dr. Patz runs both a clinical substance use reduction group and a non-clinical support group for substance use, in addition to her expertise in therapy for individuals with problematic substance use. In his role for the Office of the Dean of Students, Ray Fisco approaches substance use from a preventative and health education standpoint. He is often the person running remedial courses for students committing Code of Conduct violations and educational programming to teach students about safer usage.

Here is an overview of our conversation:

Katie Gordon

What is problematic substance use?

Ray Fisco: Substance misuse is the use of alcohol and other drugs (to also include over the counter or prescription medications) in a way that they are not meant to be used and could be harmful to you or others around you. People can misuse substances one time, occasionally or regularly, and they can go on to develop substance use disorder. Substance use disorder is when the use of alcohol or drugs impairs your health or how you function in your daily life.

Dr. Patz: Problematic substance use occurs when you continue to use substances despite adverse consequences. Your substance use may get in the way of fulfilling important life activities like work or family obligations. During COVID-19, problematic use might look like drinking earlier in the day or in larger amounts than you normally would.

Dr. Debby Patz, PsyD

Why do people tend to cope with alcohol and drugs during stressful times? What are other ways to cope? 

Dr. Patz: I think it is important to acknowledge up front that one reason people use alcohol and drugs to cope is because they work. They can relieve boredom, take away bad feelings, and make you feel like you are having more fun. However, they can lead to other problems, which may be as simple as spending money that you don’t have and consuming more calories than you want, to waking up hungover and missing classes or work, or even developing a dependence. But the reason that people use is because it works.

Ray Fisco: To follow up on that thought, yes, people use it because it works to alleviate anxiety or depression in the short term. But ultimately, it might be an issue where people are consuming more frequently or to where it becomes their primary coping mechanism.

Dr. Patz: To answer your question about coping, you cannot make bad feeling go away all together. Sometimes we just need to be present with what we are feeling and breathe through it, as we cannot always use substances to eliminate the bad.  We are in a hard time in history right now and it is okay to acknowledge that. However, that does not mean we should sit around and mope all day. Ask yourself what behavior you might engage in today that you would be happy with tomorrow. A couple solutions may be to call a friend or say hi to strangers while on a walk, spend time outside and practice gratitude. It might be a good time to challenge yourself to engage in new activities, especially ones that are incompatible with drinking such as exercise.

Ray Fisco

What advice do you have for people who have a history of substance dependence?  

Dr. Patz: Do not be bound by your history. Just because you had a substance abuse issue in the past does not mean you will relapse now. If you had one in the past but you do not have one now, that means you have developed other coping mechanisms. Remind yourself what those coping mechanisms are. Remember how hard you have worked to get where you are and stay true to yourself and your goals. Do not give up on yourself just because times are hard. None of us have ever been through times like this before, but you have been through different kinds of hard times and you will be able to get through this too.

Ray Fisco: Create a self-support system. Reach out to friends and loved ones, especially those who know your past substance issues. Find people who can check in and help keep you accountable with the amount of alcohol you may be consuming. Be honest with yourself and your support system. It may also help you to create and stick to a daily routine. Focus on things you can control and keep yourself grounded. Limit your time on social media or watching the news if you find either of those to be a trigger for anxiety. Social media often glorifies and normalizes drinking culture, so if you find yourself being triggered by those posts it is time to disengage for a while.

What resources are available to people who want to reduce their substance use or connect with others who are sober? 

Dr. Patz: There are tons of resources on and off campus that you can utilize. At UCCS, we have plenty of resources even while campus is closed due to COVID-19. We are developing a Collegiate Recovery Community. It is in the beginning phases but there is a Facebook page if you would like to connect with it. More formal resources include the Working on Wellness (WOW) group, which is a remote support group designed for students, faculty or staff who want to change substance use or other addictive behavior. For students not interested in group support, the UCCS Wellness Center is available for individual remote therapy and health services. Community resources are still available online, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Smart Recovery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 24-hour substance use help hotline can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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