COVID-19 has upended American life as we know it, and like so many others, working professionals who need addiction treatment have a great many more reasons to do so because of it.
According to the online statistics portal Statista , “While there is no way to tell exactly what the economic damage from the global COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic will be, there is widespread agreement among economists that it will have severe negative impacts on the global economy.” For professionals like doctors, pharmacists, nurses and attorneys, that economic stress is compounded by a workload that veers between an around-the-clock crisis — particularly for health care workers — to schedules that are bereft of a single appointment because of the coronavirus shutdown.
“It affects everyone differently, but it has affected everyone,” says Janet Hicks, Director of the Professionals Program at Cornerstone of Recovery, a drug and alcohol treatment center located near Knoxville, Tennessee. “Courts have been shut down, so attorneys haven’t been able to do their jobs. Elective medical procedures have been postponed, so nurses and physicians who aren’t in urgent care haven’t been working. Pharmacists are having to do all of their business via the drive-through, so that cuts down on patient contact.
“It’s caused a lot of stress and a lot of anxiety, and that doesn’t even take into account the health care workers who have been on the front lines of COVID-19. With those providers, I’ve talked to some that feel like they’ve been put in the position of playing God, having to triage patients or feeling like a failure when a patient dies. It’s having a significant impact.”
Stress and working professionals who need addiction treatment
That impact, Hicks adds, makes it imperative for working professionals who need addiction treatment to take care of themselves as soon as possible. While COVID-19 has loomed like a specter of uncertainty over Americans, it’s been a more direct and disturbing threat to health care workers, many of whom have reported drinking or turning to drug use in order to cope with stress, Hicks and others report.
“I think this is a very stressful time because a lot of their friends maybe are working from home, and they're feeling the stress of dealing with the population where somebody might be a carrier that doesn't have any symptoms,” Twila Boyd, the owner of Charleston Pharmacy in South Charleston, Ohio, told National Public Radio .
“I’ve seen that it’s affecting a lot of hospital workers, especially, because of longer hours,” Hicks adds. “It’s very stressful when they’re surrounded by a lot of death and sickness, and on top of that, they live in constant fear that they’re going to take (coronavirus) home to their families, if they even get to go home.”
That stress, according to Lynette Charity — writing for the online publication Managed Healthcare Executive  — has led to a deepening mental health crisis among frontline health care workers. Depression and fatigue are more common than ever before, and even suicide rates among health care workers has increased.
“With COVID-19, the symptoms of burnout: fatigue, frustration, helplessness, cynicism and loss of compassion for others, have been amplified,” Charity writes. “There is no one to talk to; no one to allow these feelings to be mitigated. Getting up in the morning to go to work brings on stress and that stress continues through the grueling 10, 12 or more hours of work. The fear that these workers must work no matter what. They hold constant stress that is going to lead many to become burned out and most likely become depressed.”
That stress is compounded by the extenuating circumstances posed by COVID-19, particularly in hard-hit hotspots where health care professionals have to barter and argue for safety equipment, assign ventilators to those with the greatest chance of recovery and more. Those decisions “force health-care workers to act against their core training and values, something that mental-health experts described as ‘moral injury,’” write Jason Laughlin and Bethany Ao for The Philadelphia Inquirer .
Dr. William Pace, an infectious disease physician for several Philly-area hospitals, is one of those who feels that stress keenly: “I usually cry in my car either going to work or coming home,” he tells The Philadelphia Inquirer . “I try not to do it, you know, at home or at work when I’m in front of a bunch of nurses who I’m supposedly trying to hold together. So everybody kind of picks their spots. It’s very emotional. It’s very anxiety-provoking. Nothing makes sense. It’s all unknown.”
Disrupted care, caseloads and lives
The anxiety over the present and the stress over the unknown future are fuel for the fire when it comes to drugs and alcohol, according to Hicks. And it can be even more difficult on working professionals who have struggled with a drug and alcohol problem in the past.
“I’ve seen quite a few relapses with folks who have had prior substance use treatment,” she says. “They’re dealing with all of this stress on the job, and on top of that, they’re thrown in a position where there aren’t in-person recovery meetings because of COVID-19. They don’t have their normal support groups, and that can lead to an increase in substance use.”
Front-line health care workers may face the most direct anxiety, but their peers in non-emergency medicine are feeling the effects of coronavirus, too. Telehealth has been a boon to physicians and patients who want to minimize the risk of face-to-face contact, but in many cases it amounts to a poor substitute for actual in-person medical care.
“Not being able to give a patient physical exams affects the quality of care, and you have health care workers feeling like they’re doing a job that’s not up to the standards of the job they normally do,” Hicks says.
And health care workers aren’t the only working professionals who need addiction treatment if they’ve turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. Lawyers have continued to work on cases and with clients, but courts are backlogged because of COVID-19 delays, making their jobs all the more stressful as well: “The legal profession already retains undeniable levels of pressure, with a myriad of differing drivers. Throw both Covid-19 and isolation into the mix and you have the perfect storm for lawyers (or anyone for that matter) who are susceptible to stress, anxiety, depression or any other mental illness,” writes Nicholas O’Neill for The Law Society Gazette .
If there’s any bright spot about the stress brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, O’Neill continues, it’s the realization that mental health is health, and discussion of it as it pertains to working professionals who need addiction treatment is imperative.
Working professionals who need addiction treatment: Do it now
Unfortunately, COVID-19 doesn’t seem to be loosening its grip on the professional class any more than it does on the working class: Numbers are still spiking in certain areas, and it’s anyone’s guess when things might go back to “normal” — whatever that means.
And that, Hicks points out, makes it critical for working professionals who need addiction treatment to get the help they need before the crisis grows worse.
“Now is an excellent time to address those issues,” she says. “They can get help and get healthy, because we don’t know what’s around the corner. But we do know that dealing with it sober is a lot healthier, physically and mentally, than trying to deal with it while also dealing with a drug and alcohol problem.”
One of the nurses in the program Hicks oversees at Cornerstone recently admitted because the outpatient center where she works has shut down all elective procedures. She was still covered by her insurance, Hicks says, and didn’t have to miss work in order to get a substance abuse problem under control. And because Cornerstone has remained open during the COVID-19 pandemic — maintaining stringent coronavirus protocols to protect both patients and staff — the opportunity to isolate in a healthy treatment community and get help one-on-one is without parallel, she adds.
“You can do therapy via telehealth, of course, but if you come in to treatment, you’re with other professionals who are under the same stress, and you’re dealing one on one with therapists, so it’s much more personal than online,” she says. “Plus, it’s entirely confidential, so if you come to get help for a problem before you’re confronted and forced to do so by a licensing board, you can avoid any penalties, get the help you need and go back to work much more healthy.”