State, Oakland County see uptick in substance abuse during COVID

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published October 5, 2020

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OAKLAND COUNTY — Long before the United States was battling the COVID-19 pandemic, an epidemic plagued our neighborhoods and took lives without prejudice.

Substance abuse addiction, particularly the spread of opioid narcotic use via prescription drugs or street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, has been the focus of medical professionals and law enforcement agencies for years. But the problem seems to have only intensified this year as communities have locked down to prevent the spread of the virus, according to American Addiction Centers, a nationwide rehab facility network.

The AAC reported receiving an 11% increase in new treatment inquiries in Michigan from March through July of 2020 compared to the same time period last year. Nationally, the group has seen a 16% jump in treatment inquiries.

AAC’s surveys suggest 1 in 5 unemployed Americans turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

While the doctors within the Beaumont Health System haven’t necessarily seen an increase in patients coming to emergency centers with opioid-related illnesses or other substance abuse related crises, Beaumont Hospital’s Chief of Psychiatry Dr. Ron Samarian acknowledges that a reported urge to use has increased.

“There has been a jump in anxiety and depression overall. For the first few months, no one was coming into the ER,” Samarian explained, since many people opted not to go to the hospital in the beginning of the pandemic for fear of contracting the virus. “Now, we’re at pre-COVID levels in the psychiatric department. We have a log jam almost every day now.”

Before the virus came to Michigan, state legislators put strict regulations on medical professionals on who can receive prescriptions for addictive narcotic painkillers like opioids and how often they’re able to refill those prescriptions.

“There was a cultural shift in the last year or two, so opioid scripts are down, and I would say cannabis use is up since that’s been legalized, and I’m starting to hear there’s an uptick in use with the pandemic, but I can assure you it’s not a problem that’s coming from those of us in the medical field,” Samarian said.

Maj. Chris Wundrach of the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office would agree. Looking over the department’s records from the summer, he said he hasn’t noticed an increase in opioid overdoses reported. When deputies did respond to overdoses, prescribed painkillers typically weren’t the culprit.

But neither was heroin.

“Heroin is really expensive. The price has really gone up. So the use of fentanyl has gone up,” he said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. With potency that high, it can be easy to take too much, and it’s estimated that tens of thousands of Americans die annually from fentanyl overdoses.

“Nothing has really changed with the number of overdoses. The (naloxone) deployments were about the same this year as they were last year,” Wundrach said of the opioid reversal drug.

Even for those without a history of addiction issues, the isolation and economic strife the pandemic has brought many this year could cause anyone to experience unmanageable levels of depression and anxiety.  

Samarian said people should know they’re hardly alone.

“We certainly want to keep people safe, so if you’re contemplating suicide, no matter what the staffing situation is in our ER with the virus, we want you to come in. We want to keep people safe,” he explained. “But the key is to reach out to people. I know the Zoom and cellphone calls are getting really old, but we need to reach out to people so we know we’re not alone. That loneliness and isolation really stoke up the anxiety.”

Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer for American Addiction Centers, said in a press release that “a significant portion of this year has been difficult for everyone, and very challenging for some people in recovery. Financial woes and housing concerns during a global pandemic are circumstances worrying for anyone.”


Need help getting through this … all?

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline
(800) 273-8255

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration National Helpline
(800) 662-HELP

Oakland Community Health Network
Resource and Crisis Helpline
(800) 231-1127

American Addiction Centers