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COVID-19 Could Lead to a Surge in Addiction-Related Deaths

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

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Stress man drinking while working from home

Drug overdoses are a leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018 alone, over 67,300 people died of drug overdoses in the United States. This number has been steadily on the rise since fentanyl, illicitly produced fentanyl analogues, and other synthetic opioids began flooding the market during what is commonly known as the opioid epidemic. Since early 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has joined the opioid epidemic as a second life-threatening phenomenon. 

At the time of writing this article, 749,000 people worldwide have died directly from Covid-19 infection, and 168,000 of those deaths have been in the United States. At first glance, the Covid-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic (and addiction more broadly) may seem like separate and distinct phenomena. The reality, however, is that there is significant overlap between them. As a result, addiction-related deaths are expected to continue to rise as the Covid-19 pandemic plays out.

Pre-Existing Conditions and Covid-19

While Covid-19 is not fatal for everyone, scientists recognize that the virus has a much higher fatality rate for individuals suffering from pre-existing conditions. A high percentage of deaths from Covid-19 have occurred among individuals who suffer from diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions that weaken people’s immune systems. 

While physical dependence on drugs or alcohol does not in and of itself weaken people’s immune systems, individuals who suffer from substance use disorders are far more likely to contract the above-listed conditions. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, suffering from addiction and engaging and substance abuse increases the likelihood that a person will develop lung problems, heart diseases, cancer, have a stroke, and contract infectious diseases. All of these comorbid conditions increase the risks associated with Covid-19.

Resource Centers and Support Systems are Affected

Covid-19 has affected more than just the people who contract it; in an effort to prevent the transmission of the virus, major social institutions have temporarily shut down and social distancing policies have been enforced. Individuals who suffer from substance use disorders are generally very dependent on resource centers. It may be difficult for destitute addicts to access food banks, homeless shelters, and other sources of aid. 

Even so-called “high-functioning” addicts and alcoholics with jobs and outwardly successful lives may be facing new challenges. The pandemic has shut down businesses and wiped out unprecedented numbers of jobs. As a result, the unemployment rate in the United States rose more in 3 months of Covid-19 than it did during 2 years of the Great Recession. Without access to food, shelter, or means of financial support, people who suffer from addiction are at a higher risk of experiencing the negative health consequences of their conditions.

Isolation Increases the Risk of Overdose

Addiction is often referred to as a “disease of isolation” or a “disease of loneliness.” Some social scientists now classify addiction under the umbrella term, “diseases of despair.” While there are many factors that can lead to addiction, including genetic factors and early childhood trauma, one of the primary causes of addiction is simple loneliness. Individuals with weaker social support systems are more likely to turn to substance abuse, partly because they have no peers to tell them when enough is enough, and partly as a coping tool to deal with their feelings of loneliness. 

Social isolation also increases the prevalence of other mental health conditions, which can in turn become a factor in substance abuse. Research has also shown that having a strong social support network increases the likelihood that a person will enter an addiction treatment program. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, social distancing has become a widely enforced policy to prevent the spread of the virus. One unintended consequence, however, is that isolation may drive more people into patterns of addictive behavior, decrease the likelihood that current addicts will seek treatment, and also make sober individuals in recovery more vulnerable to relapse.

The greatest risk of increased rates of substance abuse is, of course, drug overdose. Many drug overdoses are actually treatable, provided a person receives help in time. In the case of a life-threatening opioid overdose, for instance, a nearby person can administer an opioid antagonist drug called naloxone to reverse the overdose and save a person’s life. 

When people are nearby, they can also call an ambulance and make sure that an overdosing individual gets the help they need. However, social distancing policies mean that a higher proportion of drug users are now abusing substances alone, either on the streets or in the privacy of their own homes. While they aren’t necessarily more likely to overdose on drugs during this time, they are significantly less likely to receive medical assistance when they do, meaning that Covid-19 has made drug overdoses significantly more fatal.

Safe Comprehensive Solutions in Structured Sober Living Homes

For individuals who are struggling with addiction during the Covid-19 crisis, it is essential to get help. Structured sober living homes like Design for Recovery allow individuals to pursue addiction recovery in a safe, supportive environment. Structured sober living homes are an essential health service, and they continue to operate during the Covid-19 pandemic.

 Whatsmore, entering a structured sober living home is particularly safe, given that a sober living home is designed to be a safe, trigger-free environment with limited contact with the outside world. Design for Recovery is working diligently to maintain safety standards during the Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring cleanliness, proper social distancing protocol, and only accepting new residents after a mandatory health check. 

At a structured sober living like Design for Recovery, young men who are lost, alone, and struggling with substances can safely pursue addiction recovery in a community of other dedicated young men in recovery. Safe addiction resources are still a possibility during the Covid-19 pandemic. Reach out today, and we’ll be happy to discuss the particulars of your situation.


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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