As someone who has confronted addiction and is friends with other sober warriors, I know how hard it is to get clean and remain sober even under the best of circumstances. The pandemic has served as a relapse trigger for too many by compounding a deadly lack of preventative and rehabilitative services with social isolation, rising unemployment, and health insecurity.
The epidemic of overdoses in Virginia did not happen in a bubble. Virginia ranks 47th among all states in adults with a mental illness who reported they were not able to receive the treatment they needed. Thankfully, progress is being made in Virginia through funding of addiction and mental health services and the expansion of Medicaid (we worked for years to make this happen!).
Forty community service boards (CSBs) provide behavioral health services to all Virginians and the Commonwealth recently received a $53 million federal grant to help fight the opioid epidemic. If you aren’t already familiar with CSBs, they are a vital safety-net serving vulnerable members of our communities and providing critical access to behavioral health (mental health or substance use disorder) and developmental services.
Addiction often hides in plain sight and that is especially true in the Appalachian region where rural life, poverty, and a tendency to be ‘self-contained’ create a deadly combination. From personal experience, I know that state-funded addiction treatment can be the difference between death and becoming a productive, functioning member of society.
In 2020, there were more deaths from overdose in Virginia than ever before. In fact, there were 41% more overdose deaths than the previous year, which was also record-breaking. I would love to say this is surprising, but it is certainly not. During the months with the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns, it was even more difficult to access the resources and connections vital to recovery.
There is an idea that the opposite of addiction is connection. Most people I know who are active in their recovery got by with online meetings and calls from sponsors, but it is not enough for everyone. Digital deserts in rural areas, especially the Southside and Southwest Virginia regions, further compound the problem, making it difficult for people to access telehealth services.
If we accept this idea of connection as a necessity (and as an eight-years sober person, I firmly believe this is at least one aspect), we must not only allocate more funds to mental health and recovery services, but also stop the stigmatization. Addiction and mental health disorders should not be ‘dirty secrets’ that hide in plain sight, unacknowledged because they are stigmatized and make ‘regular’ people uncomfortable. For those who haven’t struggled in this way, it can be difficult to understand how shame and stigmatization makes it that much harder to ask for help.
There is a lot of work to do. Comprehensive mental health coverage must be included on insurance plans and mental health emergency situations need to be handled by trained social workers, not the police who may resort to excessive force. But before that, people who do not suffer from mental illness or addiction disorders need to see those who do as humans. Humans who need and deserve assistance when they seek it. Recovery is the most difficult thing many people will ever do—don’t make it harder.