Addiction During The Coronavirus Pandemic Medically reviewed by John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE

COVID-19 presents unique challenges for all of us. One group, in particular though, is finding that being at home, with little to no access to in-person services, is creating hardships and challenges they were not expecting. 

Over 20 million adults aged 18 or older have a substance use disorder. For many, rehab facilities, treatment centers, outpatient services, support meetings, and individual therapy are part of their ongoing treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, most of these services have changed from in-person to online, telehealth, or phone consultations to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Not only does this change how, or if someone gets help for an addiction, the effects of added stress can trigger a previous disorder for someone that is in recovery. The good news? There are resources available for people in recovery and their loved ones during this time.

How People are Accessing Treatment and Getting Support

“COVID-19 has created definite challenges in the world of rehab facilities, group meetings, and treatment centers,” says Dayry Hulkow, primary therapist at Arete Recovery, a Delphi Health Group facility. People requiring higher levels of care, such as medical detox and residential treatment, may be limited depending on their geographical location. That said, Hulkow points out that emergency services are always available. 

Clinical psychologist Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, the Executive Director of Innovation 360, says addiction specialists have been challenged to meet the demands of those still addicted as well as those that are trying to stay healthy in the midst of incredibly stressful times. 

“We can still do some face to face meetings with all the CDC precautions and are trying to make that decision based on the severity of the addiction as well as other factors like the person’s support system, their risk for relapse, other psychiatric conditions,” says Gilliland. Plus, people are able to access support online or through telephonic and video meetings and sessions. There are also some great written resources that are helpful for some.

If you are accessing lower levels of care, such as 12-step support, you can still receive services through online formats. There are also many helplines and hotlines available by phone or email, both locally and nationally.

Hulkow also stresses the importance of staying virtually connected with supportive family and friends as much as possible. 

To help facilitate treatment and recovery efforts, many support groups, organizations, and treatment centers have shifted to an online model of providing services. Through video chats, conference calls, live video meetings, and individual counseling sessions, people dealing with a substance use disorder can continue to get help while waiting for the social distancing orders to be lifted. 

How Added Stressors Can Trigger Relapse

Many experts say that addiction is a disease of isolation and that social distancing measures could impact the likelihood of people turning to drugs and alcohol to cope. This is intensified by the fact that many people in recovery rely on the human contact you experience in a support meeting or outpatient group counseling setting. 

The stress of illness, social isolation, and unemployment are all significant triggers to relapse, says Hulkow, and many people turn to substances such as alcohol, drugs, or even food as a way to cope with stressful situations.

“Stress is particularly problematic for people with addictions because the primary path of managing the spread of this virus is social isolation and isolation is the most savage of mental illness symptoms,” says Gilliland. “Isolation is a risk for a return to substance use or an escalation of use.”


Unemployment and financial hardships are also major stressors for humans, which Gilliland says can lead to depression pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it also increases the chances of people using substances. “Sometimes, we abuse substances to get away from a feeling more than to go to a feeling,” he adds.

Social Isolation

But the thing that everyone is starting to feel is the lack of physical presence. “There is simply no getting around the fact that a phone call doesn’t do as much as being in person,” says Gilliland. “And as providers, what we don’t know, is how much longer this arms-distance support (phone/video) can continue to help people maintain abstinence, this is all new territory,” says Gilliland. 

From a treatment standpoint, Gilliand says they are trying to balance providing treatment for an illness that can kill people with helping to maintain their physical health from this virus.

“This is, unfortunately, a time that much of the work falls on the shoulders of people that are struggling,” says Gilliland. Because of this, anyone impacted by addiction is left to figure out what helps and what doesn’t.

“That is hard work to do when you have someone helping you and incredibly hard work when you feel the fatigue and lack of energy that we all feel right now,” he says. Gilliland’s advice? Keep after it. “Focus on putting one foot in front of the other and try something to move you forward today. Just today.”

Addiction and Recovery Resources Available Online

While this current situation is presenting difficulties in accessing services, many therapists, addiction experts, support groups, and treatment centers are moving to an online forum to continue providing care. Many therapists can do individual counseling, couples counseling, and family counseling online. There are also some really wonderful video recovery meetings and podcasts available.

Additionally, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and several social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the American Society of Addiction Medicine released clinical guidance as well as resources in real-time for educational and information pertaining to addiction medicine. 

If you are currently under the care of a doctor or mental health expert, please talk with them first about accessing services. You can also find support and information from various organizations that are now offering online services. In addition to the resources listed below, Verywell created a comprehensive list that links to helplines, support meetings, and telehealth services. 

A Word From Verywell

Finding support during this difficult time is essential for both our physical and mental health. If you are struggling with substance abuse issues, make sure and talk with your doctor or a mental health expert. In addition to direct care, they can help you find online resources and support meetings.

Finally, if you’re thinking about suicide or suspect someone you love is in danger of hurting themselves, seek help immediately. Call 911, and if possible, stay with a friend or family member until you are in the care of a mental health expert. 

The Verywell team is here for you during this difficult time. We will continue to update our website and provide you with the most up-to-date information related to COVID-19 and your health. Take care and be well.

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