By Jamie Salsberg, LCSW, CAP, EMDR, Clinical Director

As the global pandemic continues, and more people are finally beginning to truly understand the need for social distancing, fears of isolation are also growing. Does social distancing automatically create social isolation? This is a particularly important idea for anybody struggling with substance abuse or mental health issues, as a form of social distancing and isolation have inevitably become functions of their disease.  Further, they are repeatedly told that their recovery is dependent upon learning to function with ongoing and healthy support and connection. The idea of physical separation from the people around them can be a terrifying concept, particularly for those who want to get better, since many of them may feel they are choosing between their physical survival that requires separating from others and the emotional survival that necessitates connecting with them.

For those individuals dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues, this is an extremely challenging and sometimes paralyzing concern. Many of these individuals have spent significant periods of time alone and separated from others both physically and emotionally, during the worst parts of their struggles with their disease. As they seek treatment, they are encouraged to share and spend time with others who have similar challenges and may have been doing so in treatment facilities around the country, despite the current pandemic.

This only makes the notion of leaving or completing treatment right now, even scarier. Imagine spending several weeks in a facility with others and being told that the only way to survive is to create a strong, connected social support system, while simultaneously, the outside world is being asked to physically separate from one another.  Recovery can be challenging enough without the backdrop of a world instructed to keep their distance. Compounding this fact is the idea that for many, distancing themselves from others offers a sense of comfort, as their disease created the absence of social connection and they are accustomed to being alone; these individuals must also consider the fact that this isolation could mean the difference between life and death.  What do we tell people in early recovery from mental health and substance abuse issues about their survival?

Of course, it is significant that we not minimize the seriousness of COVID-19, and the importance of following the recommendations of scientists, epidemiologists, and other experts, who highlight the need for physical separation to minimize the impact of global mortality.  However on the other hand, for many of these individuals, the risk of harm may be significantly higher from separation and isolation that result from overdose, depression, anxiety or suicide than from COVID-19.   If these individuals cannot find the support and connection that will help them to recover, their mortality is significantly at risk.  Add to this, the fact that stress, anxiety, and depression significantly impact the body and therefore lower immune response, and people struggling with these issues are in an extremely difficult spot.

So what is the answer? Are we to tell people in early recovery from mental health and addiction that they should ignore the recommendations and put themselves at risk of infection in order to manage their emotional stability?  Do we allow them to cut themselves off once again from human contact and support that we know is needed for them to flourish?  While globalization and connection of the world may be what contributed to the novel coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, the same global community in this day and age may be the thing that can save us; particularly for those dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues.  Imagine a global pandemic occurring 20 or 30 years ago when we had no global communities, no Facebook, no instant access to phones and computers, no video chats, and no ability to deliver healthcare services without in-person contact. One of the most inspiring outcomes of this pandemic has been the human need for connection, contact, and support that has shined through in spite of the current conditions.

All over the world, we see people being creative in finding ways to acknowledge those on the front lines, reach out to those who most need support, and finding ways to connect that are still safe regardless of how significant social distancing may be. We see interactive online meetings popping up, telehealth services increasing, and people finding ways to be healthy and connected without being in physical contact with one another. If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction or mental health, do not allow social distancing to become social isolation. This goes for the families of those with these ailments, as well as the individuals themselves. Watching a family member wrestle with substance abuse or addiction can be emotional, trying, and excruciating and doing this alone only adds fuel to the fire. We have so many ways to connect, even in the absence of physical contact, so we all have a responsibility to do so. While many have and will suffer from the impact of this virus physically, we can prevent many more from suffering from the impact emotionally.  Often it is in our most trying times that we find ways to overcome and achieve together.

If you are stuck at home, take a moment to reach out to someone you have not spoken to; check in with a family member; do something kind for a neighbor; send pictures or inspiring words to those you think may be struggling, and be sure to maintain a connection for yourself. In the words of many of the messages being spread as of late, we are all in this together; but in order for that to be the case, we need to make sure that we act that way, stay connected, and ask for and offer support to the people around us, near and far, to get through this crisis.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse and/or mental health issues, please reach out; we are in this together!

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