By Nicole Orro, LPC, LCADC
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data showing that overdose deaths in the United States rose by an alarming 29% last year, reaching a record 93,000.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic may not be directly to blame, it undoubtedly exacerbated what had been a public health crisis even prior to the start of the pandemic.
For people experiencing addiction or who are prone to substance use, the pandemic has added an extra layer of stress and anxiety, making it even more difficult to cope.
Help, however, is available.
Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health provides a range of programs to meet the unique needs of individuals — from adolescents to adults — who are struggling with substance use.
250 Overdose Deaths a Day
As the CDC reported, fatal overdoses claimed the lives of an average of 250 Americans a day last year, surpassing by 21,000 the number of overdose deaths from the prior year.
The majority of overdoses were attributed to fentanyl and fentanyl-laced drugs, including heroin and cocaine, according to the CDC.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid used to treat severe pain, typically advanced cancer pain, and it is 50-100 times more potent than morphine. Its illicit manufacture and use have been on the rise in recent years, contributing to the skyrocketing overdose rate.
Opioids like fentanyl and heroin work by activating receptors in the brain to produce an analgesic and euphoric effect. This effect is often what individuals are seeking from fentanyl as they attempt to cope with mild to moderate mental health symptoms, such as sadness and depression.
Unfortunately, over activation of the receptors can occur, suppressing breathing and causing death.
It is important to note that you don’t need to be dependent on opioids to experience an overdose. Whether you are a first-time user or have been using for a while, you are at risk for overdosing.
A Combination of Factors
A number of factors combined last year to exacerbate the overdose epidemic.
First, intervention and harm reduction services were harder to come by, especially during the early months of the pandemic when the country essentially shut down.
Second, the pandemic left people feeling isolated, and it also left many people with an overwhelming sense of loss and grief. In addition, it caused feelings of economic uncertainty as many people lost jobs and feared being evicted from apartments for the inability to pay rent.
In response, people who were already prone to using substances to manage feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression before COVID-19 may have increased their use to deal with the emotions brought about by the pandemic.
Hope for Recovery
If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid use, treatment is available — and it could be lifesaving.
Princeton House offers intensive outpatient programs to help adults, young adults and adolescents struggling with substance abuse and other mental health conditions.
Treatment includes a comprehensive evaluation by a board certified psychiatrist; evidence-based programs; medication evaluation and management, as needed; group and individual therapy; family education groups; and expressive therapies like art and music.
The HOPE for Recovery curriculum at Princeton House is a carefully structured set of psychoeducation groups that provide knowledge and tools that individuals can apply specifically to their recovery efforts. It also focuses on stressors related to the pandemic such as isolation, and how these challenges can impact recovery.
• Living sober. Patients learn day-to-day ways to cope, focusing on areas like recognizing growth, practicing gratitude and mindfulness, and watching for withdrawal symptoms.
• Relationships. Patients learn to improve communication, rebuild trust, set healthy boundaries, let go of guilt, and separate past actions and behaviors from their present identity.
• Stages of change. While change takes time, therapists help patients understand that things won’t be difficult forever. They also teach patients realistic goal setting and recapturing the values that may have become obscured during substance use.
• Relapse prevention. The curriculum provides specific tools to address urges and recognize triggers or warning signs of relapse. When triggers are recognized early, they can be addressed more easily.
• Social support. A focus on building networks of support that can help sustain recovery after discharge.
Naloxone an Antidote to Opioid Overdose
Naloxone, or Narcan, is a non-addictive, lifesaving drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and restore respiratory function when administered in time.
It works by occupying the affected brain receptors and displacing the opioids bound to those receptors, which may allow breathing to resume.
Available both with or without a prescription, naloxone can be administered by nearly anyone to treat someone during an overdose.
While it doesn’t resolve a substance use disorder, naloxone can prevent death and provide the survivor with the opportunity to seek appropriate treatment services.
If you have a substance user in your life, it could be lifesaving to carry naloxone yourself.
For more information about the addiction recovery programs at Princeton House visit www.princetonhouse.org or call 888-437-1610.
Nicole Orro, LPC, LCADC is a licensed professional counselor and a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. She is the director of Addiction Services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.