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OpinionCommentary

The double-edged sword of isolation

Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/KajaNi

Social isolation helps limit the spread of COVID-19 and saves lives, but paradoxically might put people — especially those with substance-use disorders and mental health conditions — at higher risk of death due to drug overdose, alcohol poisoning and suicide. In January, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that more Americans were dying from so-called “deaths of despair” than at any other point in history, and the last time we used words like “pandemic” and “crisis,” we were talking about opioids.

Federal surveys suggest that about half of U.S. adults experience an anxiety or depressive disorder at some point in their lives. That percentage will surely jump in the next year or two, and regardless of where you fit into that equation, virtually everyone is feeling anxious, stressed, frightened and worried in ways they haven’t before.

Throw in health concerns about at-risk family members, dwindling retirement accounts, potential job losses, food scarcity and the threat of civil unrest and you have the makings of yet another public health crisis that could claim thousands of lives.

At the Family and Children’s Association, we’ve already heard from local residents who are stockpiling heroin in case street availability changes, and drug counselors are getting calls from addicted folks whose drug supply has been limited by loss of income and access to dealers and who are now fighting severe flu-like withdrawal symptoms alone.

While some of our neighbors are posting funny social media memes about how much wine it will take to survive being quarantined with their kids, lots of people in recovery are scared to death that they’ll pick up their first drink in years.

Families confined with an addicted loved one in their homes are holding on for dear life, as are those who are prone to depression and other mental health disorders. Wondering whether you’ll be able to get your psychiatric medications if your doctor’s office closes or your pharmacy is overwhelmed, whether your depression will deepen and prompt suicidal thoughts, or whether you’ll start hearing voices again, is a difficult way to live.

It’s even tougher when social distancing leads your support group — with all its rituals, affirmations and group hugs — to be banned from meeting in the church basement, your trusted social worker who knows your story is self-quarantining, hospital beds are being saved for COVID-19 victims at risk for imminent death, and it might seem easier to get a case of booze delivered than it is to get a mental health clinic appointment.

Many community organizations and treatment providers are still offering essential face-to-face services conducted with proper precautions. With federal and state governments suspending regulations that were barriers to care, we’ve also moved support groups to virtual environments, are now conducting counseling sessions via phone or video, and are proactively reaching out to those most at risk more often than ever before. Whether that will be enough to adequately protect those at risk and stave off a series of post-pandemic aftershocks is unclear.

It’s probably not, and our collective willingness to take a few steps now could flatten the coronavirus curve and save lives later. You should absolutely call, text or video chat with someone who might be struggling. But you should also check in with yourself, take stock of how you are feeling, and replace 24/7 news coverage and social media with things that promote relaxation, balance, peace and joy, because let’s face it, anxiety, stress and worry could be as contagious as coronavirus. 

Jeffrey L. Reynolds is president and chief executive of Family and Children’s Association, one of Long Island’s largest health and human service nonprofits.

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