Jennifer Mayhew: Covid-19 response strong at the expense of overdose deaths?

This commentary is by Jennifer Mayhew, executive director of the Turning Point Center of Addison County.

September is both Recovery Month and Suicide Prevention Month. An increase in overdose and suicide deaths across the country is shining the spotlight on how the Covid-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected those already struggling with substance use disorder. 

The Turning Point Center of Addison County and other nonprofit recovery centers across the state have responded by expanding their services and creative solutions to support individuals and family members.

Deaths from drug overdose is the highest it has ever been in US history. Recent CDC data reported that from December 2019 to December 2020, the death toll is up 30% across the nation. In Vermont, deaths rose by 57.6 percent, the largest increase in the country, followed closely by Kentucky at 53.7 percent.

The  Covid-19 global pandemic has added a layer of complexity that has complicated the way we are addressing this public health challenge. While social distancing has become the norm to reduce the spread of Covid-19, the result has been people with substance use disorder are feeling isolated and lonely. Isolation and loneliness have led to a rise in stress, anxiety, depression, substance misuse, and opioid overdose mortality. 

Many people struggling with substance use have co-occurring mental health conditions. In fact, “alcohol and drug use disorders have been found to be strongly related to suicide risk. Individuals with a substance use disorder (i.e., either a diagnosis of abuse or dependence on alcohol or drugs) are almost six times more likely to report a lifetime suicide attempt than those without a substance use disorder (Ilgen, Kleinberg).”

The Turning Point Center of Addison County is one 12 nonprofit recovery centers in Vermont. Turning Point Center is peer-run and offers a safe and substance-free environment to support our mission: to provide peer-based recovery support to all. We seek to enhance the spiritual, mental, physical and social growth of individuals, family members and friends affected by substance use disorder and other addictions.

Turning Point Center has expanded our mental and behavioral health supports for the populations we serve by providing 24/7 access to a live recovery coach with an initiative called “Rapid Access Recovery Coaches.” This program is likely to decrease fatal/non-fatal overdoses and suicide by providing instant access to a video conferencing tool that can meet the immediate needs of those in recovery or people seeking treatment. 

The program improves our ongoing efforts to address overdose and suicide through linkage to evidence-based peer support treatment and recovery services for those at risk. 

The Turning Point staff anticipated an increase in participants due to the isolation and stress of  Covid. It was a surprise to see an 80% increase in participants receiving individual coaching from June of last year to June 2021. 

The state network of recovery centers anticipates that 2021-22 will see a similar uptick in individuals and loved ones seeking services. By strengthening community collaboration and support, the centers are confident they can collectively meet the increased need. The opposite of addiction is connection, and this is what each center works to provide.  

The 2021 Recovery Month theme is, “Recovery Is for Everyone: Every Person, Every Family, Every Community.” The theme shifts our focus to community. We celebrate our diversity and seek to develop deeper understanding, caring and connection that nurtures recovery. Stay tuned for more events and visit your local recovery centers for more information on how to be involved.

Information on how to contact your local recovery center and other recovery resources can be found here. September recovery events are here. For suicide, remember: You are not alone. For resources in Vermont, click here.


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