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As the world rapidly adjusts to the requirements placed upon it by COVID-19, many adults who struggle with other diseases are seeing their lives and routines challenged and changed by the pandemic.
Addiction is no exception. This is a disease that thrives in isolation. The rate of dual diagnosis in the UK population, including mental illness such as depression, is under 1% according to a 2015 review by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. For those struggling with addiction, it’s between 34% and 45%.
Addiction: More than physical hooks
In previous years, addiction treatment was more commonly concerned with addressing physical hooks.
Dependency began as the chief concern in rehabilitation and the understanding of addictive behaviour; an approach that has, over time, shown its limits in achieving lasting results for those with the disease.
Nowadays, we understand addiction to be as much a social phenomenon as it is a chemical one. Can a person regularly consume heroin or cocaine and form a strong physical dependency? Yes. But place that person within a loving community of peers, family and friends who stay in regular contact and the likelihood of addiction forming and maintaining plummets.
This is a critical and necessary shift in how medical professionals and the public must view addiction. Previous laws common across the world which punish addicts for their disease have shown little long-term effect other than harm, instead pushing addicts away from the nurturing connections they need so much.
Isolation: Fuelling the spiral
Knowing all this, it’s easy to see just how threatening COVID-19 is to those with problematic drug and alcohol use. The ability to see and meet other people is vital in us maintaining strong, mutually nurturing social and intimate connections. These connections check our behaviour, providing an element of social expectation that lowers our likelihood to fall into abusive substance misuse.
With social distancing and remote working leaving many at home, the threat of isolation to the nation’s well-being is undeniable and immediate. Those with the compulsive, addictive personality type – and co-occurring issues such as depression and anxiety – so common in addicts may see themselves falling into patterns of behaviour that are destructive.
In a bid to manage life without the interpersonal connections we all so naturally need, many will find comfort instead in drugs and alcohol. In this way, the spiral of addiction may begin and flourish.
Connection and understanding
What, then, can we do to help mitigate this risk? If much of the nation is by necessity being placed in a situation that is conducive to self-abuse and substance misuse, how do we help each other?
At a basic level, it’s important to respect our natural need for human connection. This is a universal requirement, and it’s something we can still maintain despite social distancing during COVID-19. Being proactive in talking to friends and family regularly will help everyone and is a small but impactful action that can maintain the connections that, if absent, enable and maintain self-abuse and addiction.
We can also appreciate how addiction services are changing too. Just as many other businesses are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic, drug rehabs are shifting to offer digital rehabilitation programmes that can be attended and completed from home.
And finally, we can learn to cast a kinder eye upon those who struggle with addiction and problematic substance misuse, even if their addiction causes harm to those around them.
The negative stigma associated with addiction to drugs and alcohol contributes to the isolation that hurts these people so much. As we, as a country, adjust to the pandemic before us, part of that adjustment should include being more supportive and available to those battling the disease of addiction.
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