Apparently, we are drinking more alcohol, smoking more cannabis and, sadly, more Americans are dying from drug overdoses than ever before. Welcome to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

October is Substance Misuse Prevention Month, and in this new landscape we are seeing an increase in the use of substances, mental health concerns, and we know that some individuals are developing or living with a substance-use disorder, but because of the stigma and stereotypes associated with substance-use disorders, are not seeking help. 

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published a study that provided clear evidence of an increase in alcohol consumption since March. Liquor stores reported a substantial increase in alcohol sales beginning in mid-March, and the World Health Organization warned that alcohol use during the pandemic may exacerbate health concerns, violence, risk-taking behaviors and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. George Koop, the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), wrote in a recent blog that social isolation, unemployment and financial pressures can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression, and can lead to an increase in substance use.

“We know from previous disasters, such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, that the stress of the events and anxiety about the future can increase drinking and exacerbate symptoms of alcohol use disorder,” he wrote.   

Echoing the thoughts of Koop, local mental health professional Mandy Miller said, “My clients are expressing higher rates of anxiety and depression since March.  While many are adopting healthy coping strategies such as exercise, mindfulness and yoga, others are turning to substances to cope and, in some cases, are in danger of developing a substance-use disorder along with their underlying mental health concerns.” 

Colorado recorded record cannabis sales between May and August, with over $1.2 billion in sales through Aug. 31. Against this backdrop of booming cannabis sales is the latest data from the Healthy Kids Colorado 2019 survey, which reports that about one in five Colorado high school students reported using cannabis within the past 30 days. Not only is more cannabis being sold, but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the potency of cannabis has increased and the THC content, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, has gone from 3.96 percent to 15.61 percent over the past two decades (based on a sampling of cannabis seized by the Drug Enforcement Agency). While we know that in March many people rushed to buy cannabis when the state and cities issued conflicting information about the status of dispensaries as essential businesses, the continued strong sales suggest that the same forces that are driving alcohol sales may be responsible for the increase of cannabis sales statewide.

The U.S. and Colorado are also experiencing a resurgence of opioid overdose deaths, with a record 71,999 people dying in 2019. According to a recent Denver Post article, 597 Coloradans died of overdoses between March and August, up 40 percent from a three-year average of 424 deaths. Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brown University who studies drug abuse and addiction, stated in a July 15 New York Times article that progress in reducing opioid deaths had largely been erased due to COVID-19.

“Social isolation has always been a huge component of drug overdose risk. So much of what we’ve been trying to do has been completely unraveled,” she wrote.

For individuals who may be seeking support, Alcoholics Anonymous chapters are continuing to operate virtually. Learn more about local meetings at /aa-westerncolorado.com/meetings. In Telluride, a local chapter of Addict II Athlete, supporting an alternative to traditional support groups for recovery, is operating with weekly meetings and opportunities to connect through exercise (contact Tara Butson at tarabutson@gmail.com).

If you are seeking professional help, Tri-County Health Network maintains a directory of local mental health professionals at tchnetworkdirectory.org and offers teletherapy with Colorado-licensed therapists at low or no cost to community members, and for free to students and staff in area schools. You can learn more at tchnetwork.org/teletherapy.

The San Miguel Behavioral Health Solutions Panel provides funding for community members to access behavioral health services if they cannot otherwise afford them. Application for funding can be made through the Good Neighbor Fund at tchnetwork.org/gnf-application.  

Consider celebrating Substance Misuse Prevention Month by giving up substances for a day, a week or the month, get outside to walk, hike, bike or run and enjoy the beautiful fall weather, connect with friends in a safe and physically distanced way, and support our fellow community members living in recovery.