Addiction has soared during the pandemic. Here’s how one treatment center is responding.
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The pandemic has taken a toll on many Americans’ mental health. Therapists say they’re busier than normal and are having to turn more prospective patients away. Last summer, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, a significant increase from the previous year. Overdose deaths accelerated during the first months of the pandemic, according to the CDC, and a peer-reviewed study published in January suggests the spike has primarily impacted Black communities, which have experienced disproportionate rates of illness and financial loss during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, substance use programs say demand for treatment has surged.
“Even prior to the pandemic, we were dealing with an increase in suicide rates, overdose rates. We were still dealing with an ever-evolving opioid epidemic. And the pandemic just poured gasoline on that fire,” said Dr. Joseph Lee, the incoming president and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, one of the country’s leading addiction treatment organizations.
Lee said the foundation, which operates 17 facilities in nine states and offers both residential and outpatient treatment, is expecting to see an even larger surge in demand for addiction treatment in the aftermath of the pandemic.
“Many people who were at risk are developing problems. We see statistics that show that those trends are occurring. And once they start to feel safe to engage in treatment again, I think there will be an increased demand over the next year or two,” Lee told “Marketplace Morning Report” host Sabri Ben-Achour.
Lee will be the first physician and the first non-white person to lead the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He said that one of his priorities will be expanding access to addiction treatment, which is often expensive and can be unaffordable for many who need it.
“We have to be very creative in reaching out to different communities and seeing how we can partner, and to be humble in those partnerships. It will be a journey, but I’m confident and emboldened that we can make progress there,” said Lee.
The following is an edited transcript of Lee’s interview with Ben-Achour.
Sabri Ben-Achour: Loneliness can lead to substance use and addiction, and a lot of people have been struggling with isolation and depression during this pandemic. How has that showed up in your work at the clinic?
Joseph Lee: We’ve known that addiction is a disease of loneliness, and we also know that people heal together. And so we prepared for an increase in overdoses, an increase in mental health concerns. We thought this would happen. And we did the best we could to keep our doors open; use virtual platforms and other technological applications to really meet people where they’re at.
I think there’s a silver lining, which is that, for the first time in a while, the average American understands what it’s like to be lonely. And if we can capitalize on that empathy, I think we can do some great things: policy changes, freeing up resources, really fighting the stigma that keeps people sick for way too long with addiction.
Ben-Achour: Have you actually seen an increase in demand for treatment during the pandemic?
Lee: Yes, we saw a lot of increased demand, but we see the demand increasing even more in the aftermath of the pandemic.
Ben-Achour: Why is that?
Lee: Well, I think there’s been a big toll. Many people who were at risk are developing problems. We see statistics that show that those trends are occurring. And once they start to feel safe to engage in treatment again, I think there will be an increased demand over the next year or two.
Ben-Achour: This past year has widened and exposed economic divides and racial divides in so many ways. Overdoses surged among Black Americans during the first few months the pandemic; they were flat or declined for white Americans. On the economic side of things, even outside of a pandemic in which millions of people lost their jobs, rehabilitation is seen as an option for the well-off. And the Hazelden Betty Ford is a private clinic, you take private insurance but not Medicaid or Medicare. How do more people get access to treatment as more people need it?
Lee: On the one hand, we’ve always spoken for marginalized people with substance use disorders. But we’ve done so for a narrow demographic, and we accept that. And so I think symbolically, but also personally, it matters to me — being an immigrant, being a person of color — the very first meeting I had as CEO was with our diversity, equity and inclusion group and our people color group. And it was a very heartfelt and emotional meeting, because we all recognize that we had a lot of work to do.
And so I think it means that we have to be very creative in reaching out to different communities and seeing how we can partner, and to be humble in those partnerships. It will be a journey, but I’m confident and emboldened that we can make progress there.
Ben-Achour: We were already dealing with the opioid epidemic before this pandemic hit. How have those two intersected?
Lee: That’s a great question. Even prior to the pandemic, we were dealing with an increase in suicide rates, overdose rates. We were still dealing with an ever-evolving opioid epidemic — which is just a slice of addiction, by the way. Alcohol and nicotine and other substances are still out there, may not get the same amount of news, but they were ravaging in many ways. And the pandemic just poured gasoline on that fire.
And, just like you spoke of with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts — just like people weren’t affected the same by the pandemic, institutions and health care sectors also weren’t affected the same. And so I think it made it tougher for people with substance use disorders from all walks of life to get the kind of help they needed in a pandemic setting, sometimes because of their access issues, but also because many of the providers that were providing treatment were also under strain, and that made it doubly tough.
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