Social Distancing when Community is the Cure

From primary care visits to behavioral health, social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic has driven rapid adoption of telemedicine across healthcare. Companies providing telehealth and digital support services have been inundated with requests to get their products up and running quickly, and where these capabilities already exist, utilization is increasing.

Much of this adoption is attributable to expanded reimbursement for telehealth services from both government and payers, and in the substance use disorder space, emergency guidelines from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration have relaxed restrictions on medication-assisted treatment.

While this shift in care delivery can help expand treatment access, individuals in early recovery are particularly vulnerable to social isolation and stress from financial difficulties accompanying the pandemic. Even during the best of times, maintaining recovery is challenging and individuals lean heavily on their recovery communities. Nancy Hooper, an axialHealthcare pharmacist in recovery, explains, “Addiction is isolating. With in-person meetings being put on hold, I feel both immense gratitude for my recovery community and also fear for those new to recovery. The disease of addiction is deadly and is not going to be idle during these times.”

Typically, a robust volunteer effort brings recovery meetings and peer support into treatment centers. This allows patients to make connections, exchange numbers, and see with their own eyes individuals in recovery who are living happy, productive lives—providing that spark of hope that the future can be different. However, with support groups being forced online during the pandemic, the recovery community has rallied quickly to take advantage of social media and technology. Programs like 12 Step provide daily updates on virtual meetings, and Facebook groups offer space to share encouraging thoughts, and highlight needs and volunteer opportunities in the recovery community.

Jake Nichols, Principal of Clinical Strategy for SUD at axialHealthcare and in recovery himself, says the growth and utilization of online support during the last 6 weeks has been astounding. Many are experiencing this medium for the first time, and that experience has been largely positive. Jake believes there will be a willingness to continue utilizing online support even after the COVID-19 threat has receded.

Traditionally, treatment and recovery has been fueled by in-person interaction, but it’s clear that for now, the community is weathering this storm together, using new tools to channel the efforts of an established and committed support network. Perhaps once this has passed, substance use disorder treatment and recovery will find a new normal— one that embraces the best of the old and the new. In Nancy’s words, “People in recovery from substance use disorder are a resilient lot. We will continue to adapt wherever possible, supporting each other and sharing the message of hope.”

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