Early quarantine was an abrupt adjustment to our way of life. Weeks of conflicting information raised anxiety, and a deadly virus sequestered us indoors and away from each other. Collectively we were given a pass. Finding comfort and coping was momentarily permissible.
Months later, job insecurity, school closings, and enduring feelings of isolation has taken a toll on all of our mental health. More than four in ten adults overall (45%) in April felt that worry and stress related to coronavirus has had a negative impact on their mental health, up from 32% in early March, according to a poll from KFF. A number that is likely to increase for all of us as we grasp for normalcy amid so much uncertainty.
But for those struggling with addiction, the pandemic stressors and loss of structured support have made relapse and avoiding treatment too easy. “A massive difference between the general population and those in early recovery, Client Coordinator for Williamsburg Therapy Group (WTG) Grey Cleveland explains, "is that the only coping mechanism these individuals have known for years would in fact make each of these problems worse, and potentially lead to a loss of life."
Isolation is a common trigger for people to use substances, which is why a lot of recovery programs are built on peer support. Many people in early addiction treatment rely on support groups to be crucial to their recovery. Finding a community of others dealing with and processing similar struggles offers a perspective on addiction, mainly that you are not struggling alone. However, current social distancing guidelines means that person-to-person contact conflicts with people’s ability to stop the spread of the virus.
With in person recovery support being a risk for infection, health professionals have been looking toward virtual spaces. While some branches of health care are able to make a smoother transition to online, many wonder if online substance treatment will be able to keep patients connected and held accountable.
Williamsburg Therapy Group is one of the latest mental health centers that have turned to an online space for reliable and high quality treatment as part of a creative solution to continuing out-patient care without COVID-19’s mitigating risks. Which means taking every measure to make sure the client experience closely resembles that of the in-person experience, while putting well being and safety as a priority. For instance, materials will be shipped directly to the client’s home, and creative accountability measures are in place.
When asked more about how they will monitor clients substance use from a distance, Cleveland responded with Williamsburg Therapy Group’s methods for overcoming that obstacle.
"Accountability is extremely important when treating Substance Abuse Disorder (SUD) patients. Without seeing a patient in person, providing this accountability can be difficult for our clinicians. Fortunately, we have some solutions. SoberLink is a device that is used to measure a patient’s blood alcohol content, with one major difference from most breathalyzers. SoberLink is connected to an app that will prompt the patient when to use the device and alert the patient’s support team if the patient misses a prompt or fails a BAC test. Similarly, in-home drug tests are available. The patient administers an oral swab by themselves while on a video session with their individual therapist. They are equipped with a tamper proof seal and pre-paid packaging to send directly to the lab. The clinician is able to observe the patient administering the oral swab and sealing the package with the tamper-proof label. The lab will notify the clinician if the packaging appears to have been tampered with prior to arrival."
Despite lacking in physical presence, clinicians agree that virtual treatment is well worth pursuing. As community based support is beginning its transfer from in person to online, that sense of connectivity is remarkably still intact. From Zoom to Google hangout, you get a similar social dynamic to previously in person gatherings. Most importantly, you get to see other people who are in a similar position, while discussing solutions based ideas and treatment options.
Even remotely, virtual recovery treatment offers the knowledge that you are not alone and your situation is not hopeless. Patients can still participate in a community of recovery that is helpful during and after outpatient care. Group sessions provide information that gives you an education on what addiction is, while one on one sessions help individual triggers and treatment.
Although still in its early transition for mental health/medicine, virtual community has long had a place in our culture. Making many clinicians confident that telemedicine will continue to provide alternative access to recovery treatment even post COVID. In the case of a natural disaster, extreme weather, there will already be a remote option in place. Other factors such as shortage of doctors in rural spaces, difficulty traveling to treatment centers, things that were already challenges for patients before, are assuaged by a remote option. Looking ahead, telemedicine may be the best way to provide high-quality level of care while ensuring patients safety and breaking down geographical barriers to reach even more people in need.
It can feel really tempting to put your mental health on the back burner right now because there is so much happening. But you might need help more than ever. Many of us are experiencing strong emotional stressors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as isolation, anxiety, hopelessness, fear, and frustration. Each of these things can exacerbate an individual’s SUD symptoms. Taking advantage of virtual care is a safe and quality option. Seeking help, and having a convenient and available structure of support is just as much of an investment in one is future as it ever was.
As we keep grinding toward a sense of normalcy it is natural to yearn for old habits, even for old ways of managing old habits. What we are coming to realize as more outpatient programs are becoming virtual, is that we can benefit from new conveniences on our way to a new normal.
The Program is readily available for prospective patients. We encourage anyone with an interest in The Program at Williamsburg Therapy Group to reach out to us directly at 347-765-0904 or at [email protected]