Social Distancing and Recovery from Substance Use

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has initiated drastic public response, including calls for social distancing and self-quarantine for those who may be ill. For most, these steps are an inconvenience. But for our most vulnerable, social distancing can spell trouble. Children who rely on schools for food may go hungry. People and families in crowded shelters are at higher risk. Elders living independently and in long-term care facilities are also at higher risk and may go for long periods of time without any social connection. But there is one vulnerable group that has not been mentioned enough—those who are in active substance use and in recovery.

HRiA has provided treatment referral services for over 22 years. We understand that people recovering from substance use disorders are at risk of a setback, and emergencies like COVID-19 can add stress on their continued recovery. In addition, people in recovery may have weakened immune systems from long term substance use. This article explores how people can continue in their recovery and stay healthy and how loved ones can help during this or any future public health crisis.

For those who are actively using substances, our friends at the Harm Reduction Coalition have put together a comprehensive guide for safe drug use during COVID-19.

UPDATE 4/7/20: The Mayor of Boston’s Office of Recovery Services put together resources for city residents.

Guidance for those in recovery:

  1. Recognize that this is a stressful time, and that’s okay. It is completely normal to be concerned about staying sober right now.
  2. Connect with your sponsor or a trusted loved one. Call, text, or email a trusted friend. Let them know how you’re feeling and ask for what you need.
  3. Review your plan. In your recovery, you’ve created a plan of action to avoid a setback. Review your plan and use it when necessary.
  4. Identify online resources to supplement your plan. If your plan involves going to meetings that are no longer being held in person, you can easily find online meeting alternatives:
  5. Review your plan for emergencies. Your emergency plan should not change because of a public health emergency. Your health and wellbeing in recovery continue to be an important part of your life.
  6. Change your plan to meet your current needs. Think about the things that you can do while staying safe during social distancing. Some things you can add to your plan:
  7. Stock up on a 30-day supply prescribed medications and supplements to keep yourself healthy and safe. Some medications have limits on the quantity and frequency of refills, especially those for addiction treatment (MAT), like methadone or buprenorphine. Contact your care team to plan for getting your medications as needed.
  8. Check the news a little less while staying informed. In an emergency, it’s important to know what’s going on. However, this can be overwhelming and cause a lot of anxiety. Try turning off notifications on your phone and check it less often, perhaps once or twice a day. When checking the news, stick to quality sources and avoid the comments section.
  9. Change your social media settings. Staying connected during social distancing is healthy, but sometimes social media can be a source of anxiety. Mute, snooze, or unfollow people who are sharing triggering, upsetting, or incorrect information as you see fit. Look for sources of positive content.
  10. Focus on your health.  Eat well, hydrate, sleep, and stay connected to loved ones. Stay as active as possible while remaining safe. Be aware of other addicting behaviors like overeating and gambling.
  11. For those recovering from opioid use: get Narcan (naloxone) and keep it on hand for emergencies.
    • Massachusetts residents can learn more about accessing Narcan here.

If you’re at risk of a setback (sometimes called a relapse):

  1. Read “How to prevent relapse” from our Massachusetts Helpline.
  2. Call someone you trust. This can be you sponsor, recovery coach, or other trusted support.
  3. Contact a helpline. HRiA manages helplines in three states. If you can’t find a helpline in your state, please contact the national hotline.
    • Massachusetts: 800.327.5050
    • Illinois: 833-2FINDHELP
    • Vermont: 802-565-LINK (5465)
    • National: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

If you have a setback—use your emergency plan.

  1. Call 911 if you have an emergency and need medical or mental health care.
  2. Call someone you trust. This can be you sponsor, recovery coach, or other trusted support.
  3. Keep in mind that a setback is part of the process and a chance to reset and restart your journey.

Guidance for loved ones of those in recovery:

  1. Call, text, or email your loved one. Let them know that you are there for them, even if it’s just virtually.
  2. Acknowledge that this is a stressful time, particularly for those trying to overcome addiction. Talk openly and honestly with your loved one and let them know that you know that this situation can be triggering.
  3. Ask your loved one how you can best support them right now.
  4. Share this resource with them!
  5. If your loved one is in recovery from opioid use, find and obtain Narcan to keep on hand.
    • Information on how to obtain Narcan in Massachusetts can be found here.

Additional resources:

As you move through this challenging time, remember that this too shall pass. This is not the first challenge you’ve encountered in recovery, and it certainly won’t be the last. Stay strong and healthy, and remember that there is always hope.