How the Pandemic Ruined UK’s Addiction Fighting Efforts

Addiction was the most pressing public health issue facing the UK, until the Coronavirus pandemic emerged. Public health experts from various substance rehabilitation services across the country worried the virus outbreak would stall the state’s progress in addressing the addiction epidemic, and voiced concerns over the potential devastating impacts of the pandemic on people struggling with substance dependence.

Just as they had predicted, Coronavirus took attention away from the long-standing addiction epidemic, and measures to control the virus led to unintended harm for those living with or in recovery from substance abuse.

COVID-19 Pandemic Overshadows the War on Addiction

Prior to the arrival of Coronavirus in early 2020, the drug use epidemic was almost at crisis levels. The state’s undivided attention was on tackling the widespread substance use and minimising its impacts on communities and the nation’s economy.

The pandemic came at a time intended to be the UK’s turning point — just when the government was looking to implement robust action plans in response to the soaring rates of substance abuse. Among these plans included directing more funding to boost the operations of addiction treatment centres, setting up more treatment facilities to improve access to substance use treatment, and increasing the addiction treatment workforce.

However, the government’s focus had to change when Coronavirus hit the nation. As getting the virus under control became a priority, and understandably so, the fight against addiction took a back seat.

The urgency to save millions of people from succumbing to the highly contagious virus forced the state to divert more attention and resources towards enforcing COVID-19 prevention interventions, leaving the addiction epidemic response plans seriously underfunded.

If heavy investments in addiction treatment services were made throughout the pre-pandemic years, it’s likely the dramatic rise in substance abuse during the pandemic wouldn’t have been witnessed. Fortunately, successful attempts to curb the spread of the infectious virus sparked a shift in focus back to the nation’s addiction crisis.

The government, in December 2021, injected the largest amount of funding ever to facilitate major reforms in the delivery, accessibility, and availability of drug treatment services. With this sizable funding, more rehab facilities will be able to meet the increasing demand for drug misuse treatment, and there will be better health outcomes in the coming years.

Disruptions to Addiction Treatment Access

According to the latest report, the pandemic put medication-assisted detox treatment, outpatient services, and residential rehab for drug misuse out of reach for many. Addiction treatment centres had to adhere to social distancing protocols and thus reduced the number of patients they could handle. Other facilities had to temporarily close their doors to the public, particularly during the initial months when the virus spread rapidly.

Though necessary, these responses created a shortage of treatment. Most individuals who wished to get started on treatment or carry on with their recovery journey had a change of mind. Many feared getting exposed to the virus while attending outpatient service appointments or during their stay at a residential rehab.

To ensure that as many people as possible remained in treatment amid these inconveniences, more rehab providers would have leveraged telehealth platforms to allow those already involved in treatment to attend their therapy sessions online.

Stay-at-home orders came with the temptations of continued substance use, and without easy access to treatment, many developed serious dependence problems. This further undermined the state’s efforts to lower the rising cases of hospital admissions and emergency care visits arising from drug overdoses.

Similarly, Coronavirus made it harder for people undergoing treatment for substance use disorders to access their medications. As a result of these treatment disruptions, many who were healing from illnesses such as opioid use disorder relapsed on illicit opioids.

Covid-19 Interrupts Access to Support Networks

During the pandemic year, people going through recovery from dependency struggled to maintain contact with their support networks. Face-to-face peer support group meetings couldn’t run as usual because of the frequent lockdowns and government bans on social gatherings. Most support groups had to hold their recovery meetings online.

While some in recovery tapped on this innovative approach to stay committed to their sobriety journey, others, unfortunately, couldn’t keep up, and relapse became a reality. Creating more awareness of these online recovery support opportunities, and constantly encouraging those in recovery to embrace these alternatives would ensure a majority stayed connected with a solid support system amid the public health emergency. 

Disruptions to Mental Health Treatment Services

The Coronavirus pandemic generated a wave of emotional distress and mental health problems that further complicated the government’s efforts to combat the addiction epidemic. The temptation to indulge in drugs and alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms became more pronounced throughout the pandemic year.

On top of that, stay-at-home orders had many struggling with boredom and isolation indoors, which eventually fuelled the use of substances to escape these negative emotions. Easy access to mental health services was nearly impossible because of the several restrictions enforced to control the virus. Increasing public awareness of healthier coping mechanisms during this difficult time would have lowered the growing number of people using substances to deal with unpleasant emotions.   

A Hopeful Future

After several months of mitigating the threats of the virus, there’s hope for significant progress in the fight against substance use. The weight of the pandemic has, to a great extent, been lifted, and the addiction crisis is now being addressed with the level of urgency it deserves. 

Lockdowns and other restrictions have been relaxed in almost every region across the nation, allowing rehab centres and mental health treatment facilities to resume operations fully.  Residential rehab providers are doing everything they can to come through for individuals in need of professional help for substance abuse. Those undergoing treatment for substance use disorders can now access their life-saving medications, which will lower the likelihood of higher overdose fatalities.

With more people entering rehab for drug misuse, accessing mental health treatment, and having opportunities to connect with in-person recovery support systems, it’s possible that future data on the rates of addiction in the nation will show promising results.  

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