Opioid deaths in Ingham County, where most of East Lansing is located, have more than doubled during the pandemic, climbing to 65 in the first half of 2020 alone, according to a report by the Ingham Opioid Abuse Prevention Initiative (IOAPI). Advocates in our community fear social distancing, which limits interpersonal connections that are important for recovery, has played a role.
“We were making inroads in the issue, decreasing since 2016,” said Phil Pavona, founder of the Ingham County-Okemos Chapter of Families Against Narcotics (FAN). “Now overdose deaths and substance abuse disorders are back to 2013 levels.”
Increases were also noted by Sparrow Health System’s Department of Forensic Pathology, and Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail has told reporters on multiple occasions that opioid use during the pandemic is of great concern to the Health Department.
East Lansing’s 54-B District Court Drug Court adapted to the pandemic while losing some important aspects of community that in-person gatherings provided.
Personal connections are the most important aspect of East Lansing’s 54-B District Court Drug Court, and despite quickly adapting to telehealth options and replacing bimonthly in-person meetings with Zoom calls, that sense of connection was difficult to manufacture.
“The point was to have the new and advanced participants all together, to be able to see consequences and successes,” said Judge Andrea Larkin of East Lansing’s 54-B District Court about the former procedure of the program. Without in-person mingling, the program had to find new ways to reach out and connect with clients.
Since isolation is one of the major things to avoid in substance abuse recovery but necessary to slow the pandemic, the leaders and volunteers of the program had to work harder to reach out to the participants.
“We had to change immediately, while changing our clients’ routines the least,” said chief probation officer and treatment court coordinator Amy Iseler. “It is incumbent on us to offer opportunity to connect.”
The majority of the program participants struggle with additional mental health illnesses on top of addiction. Those issues were only exacerbated as access to appropriate resources and many healthy outlets became limited because of Covid-related restrictions, according to Iseler.
“The goal of our court is not only to get participants to recovery, but out of the criminal justice system,” said Larkin. This proved challenging, as the State of Michigan made pandemic-spurred funding cuts to extended-care in-treatment programs. The program resorted to relying on funds provided by non-profit organizations like FAN for long-term housing for clients.
Despite the upheaval caused by the pandemic across every aspect of life, the majority of participants are back to work, and continue to graduate at their own pace. The volume of participants did not slow, and neither did the coordinators’ efforts.
“We are centered on best practices,” said Iseler in regard to a hopeful return to in-person treatment. “Still, there are things to be learned from the last year and a half.”
The treatment court saw little change in the number of participants in the program, because addiction does not stop for the pandemic, and many other programs have seen similar situations.
In contrast, Michigan State University’s Collegiate Recovery Community (CRC) has seen numbers drop during the pandemic. Once the pandemic hit, the CRC continued to provide what services it could, despite the lack of interpersonal connections. Although a new virtual weekly peer support group saw very strong engagement in the early months of the pandemic, they have noticed dwindling engagement since then.
“We’ve seen a good number reach out to us since the pandemic, but few follow through and become engaged,” said Dawn Kepler, coordinator of the CRC.
Treatment options and methods in the area have also changed, but some fear those in need might be slipping through the cracks.
Mid-Michigan Recovery Services (MMRS) is a substance abuse recovery center in Ingham County that looks at all of the components of the patient and situation. Prior to the pandemic, MMRS operated primarily via individualized outpatient counseling, residential treatment services, and post-residential recovery housing.
Outpatient counseling sessions became telehealth calls, conducted remotely. All of their residential treatment houses established protocols compliant with Covid guidelines, although at diminished capacity.
As restrictions have begun to be lifted, MMRS has been able to offer the choice of virtual or in-person services. Despite the benefits of face-to-face programs, many patients at MMRS prefer the virtual resources and services the organization shifted to during the pandemic. Only 20% have taken advantage of the newly reinstated in-person opportunities.
Allowing people to get help in the comfort of their own home, not sharing space or stories with strangers, has been beneficial for some patients. However, being required to stay home has given some people struggling with substance abuse a cover to avoid treatment.
“We call, and some clients don’t pick up the phone,” said MMRS Assistant Director Ashita Ghelani, remarking on how easy it is to avoid connection in virtual counseling.
Families of those struggling with addiction are also feeling the isolation.
The most helpful part of FAN’s services for struggling parents was that personal connection, according to Pavona. “It was important to see other parents, who lived very close to them, that were having these same problems.”
The reassurance that their parenting had not failed and the blame did not lie with them was aided by the community they found through FAN. But now their family forums, usually attended by 70 to 130 or more, were forced online and lost attendance and efficacy.
FAN also offers training to families dealing with children struggling with addiction, because often when patients are returned to their homes, “fights break out, they start stealing, or their families unintentionally start enabling them,” said Pavona. With many of the usual destinations for recovering addictions unable to accommodate, organizations like FAN take it upon themselves to ensure that the environments patients return to are optimal.
Just as with every mental health concern, such as depression, that increased as a result of the pandemic, substance use disorders were similarly affected. The link between other mental health issues and substance abuse has never been clearer.
“Because of secondary trauma experienced as a result of the pandemic, opioid usage will continue to increase.” said Ghelani.