Alcohol and Substance Abuse: A Forgotten Pandemic After COVID-19

“Before COVID-19, substance abuse was the most significant public health emergency in America for over a decade. Our country poured massive amounts of funding into prevention and treatment programs, and overdose deaths were the statistics that plastered the headlines. But throughout the last couple of months, the conversation has shifted more and more to the coronavirus, to the point where it’s virtually the only topic covered. America’s drug epidemic has fallen by the wayside”. 

-San Diego Downtown News


More than 100,000 lives in the United States have been lost due to COVID-19, and the virus is still killing more individuals. Although more lives have been lost due to COVID-19 in 2020 compared to drug overdose, throughout history, opioids remain as the number one killer overtime.  


In 2018, opioids were involved in more than 46,000 drug overdose deaths. 

From 1999 to 2017, more than 702,000 individuals have died from a drug overdose. 

In 2017, more than 70,000 individuals died from drug overdoses, making it a leading cause of injury-related death in the United States. 

Approximately 70 percent of drug overdoses involved a prescription or illicit opioid.


An increase in suicide, substance abuse, and relapse

COVID-19 has sparked an unplanned pandemic of its own with alcohol prices surging and individuals spiraling from depression and anxiety. There have been reports of increased suicides, over flooding of disaster distress hotlines, a surge in drug overdoses, and a sharp rise in intimate partner violence and child abuse


The Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline, has seen a massive spike in calls of people seeking help recently. In March, the helpline saw a 338% increase in call volume compared to February, and compared to March last year for March, they had an 891% increase of calls. 


The deaths from COVID-19 are heartbreaking. The financial devastation from COVID-19 is heartbreaking. The overdoses, spikes in drug and alcohol use, and mental health effects from COVID-19 are devastating and most likely will linger even after the virus has run its course. Many people are grieving the loss of their loved ones, the loss of their jobs and are overwhelmed with stress from this pandemic. 


Businesses closed and alcohol sales boomed

Although restaurants and bars have closed in California and most of the states across America, it did not stop the alcohol from flowing. Alcohol sales soared by 55% in late March as Zoom happy hours, take-out cocktails, and virtual beer and wine tasting became a trending fad throughout the country. Alcohol deliveries soared, and when many alcohol treatment centers closed their doors and transitioned to virtual therapy, they added more stress for those in recovery. 


Also, more people remained home alone, and without the support from loved ones, community or recovery groups, and the urge to use alcohol as a temporary stress reliever became increasingly more attractive. Economic dislocation, job loss, and fear of death by the disease are triggers for substance use, heightening the risk of other issues like suicide and domestic violence. All of these risk factors have pushed people into a dark corner, and often, stress and loneliness are the two key ingredients for relapse, overdose, and binge drinking. 


Re-opening could spark a hopeful increase in treatment

As Southern California and the rest of the state and country begin to re-open, people are starting to congregate and rely on each other for support. Many restaurants are open for dine-in and are serving alcohol, and although bars are still closed, virtual happy hours and alcohol deliveries are still on the rise. As we come together in community, we are still at risk of overindulging, relying on alcohol and other substances as unhealthy coping mechanisms and relapsing. Many of us need to consider therapy and community support meetings more than ever, even if we don’t think we are at risk.  


Some of us can walk into a community support group, recognize our triggers and habits, and work with our support systems to overcome the early stages of our dependence. But for many of us, we need a more hands-on approach from people who can help us uncover our deep underlying triggers and help us recognize our patterns and behaviors. Whether it is outpatient or residential treatment, entering into treatment is the first step in the right direction. 


It is difficult to estimate how long this pandemic will last and how long the aftermath will affect our mental psyche. Many addiction experts and therapists are assuming that relapse and addiction rates will increase over the long term, and treatment centers will begin to see an increase in admissions. 


Casa Palmera can help

At Casa Palmera, our goal is whole-person healing; we treat the whole person and not just the disorder. Our dedicated treatment team goes underneath the surface of a presenting problem to determine the underlying triggers and address the root so that it doesn’t manifest itself in other ways. Our goal is not to treat the wound with a Band-Aid but instead develop a permanent solution to problems that are preventing you from living your happiest and healthiest life. Our clinical staff works with you to develop an individualized treatment plan that includes therapy approaches for your specific needs, as well as tools that will improve your life on a holistic level. Learn more about Casa Palmera here and see how Casa Palmera’s programs can help you transform your mind, body, and soul. 


Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the vital world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases, including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.