Stress Binge

Covid-19: Addictions services see spike in relapses, fear people will die in lockdown

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Addictions specialists fear people will die from alcohol and drug overdoses in lockdown without more support, as a spike in relapses puts pressure on private treatment services.

They say the social and physical isolation that comes with alert levels 3 and 4 can make it easier for addicts to slip into old habits and behaviours they previously had under control.

Janet Thompson​, chair of rehabilitation facility The Retreat in Auckland’s Ōtāhuhu, had been overwhelmed with “absolutely heartbreaking” calls from people struggling with substance abuse, and their loved ones.

“The only advice you can give to them is that unfortunately you have to keep drinking because it’s too dangerous to stop. They’re in this terrible place where they don’t want to drink, but they have no option but to drink because they’re so addicted.”

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Janet Thompson says she’s hearing “heartbreaking” stories of addicts and alcoholics unable to access help duirng lockdown.

Ricky Wilson/Stuff

Janet Thompson says she’s hearing “heartbreaking” stories of addicts and alcoholics unable to access help duirng lockdown.

She said the problem seemed “far worse” compared to the April 2020 lockdown.

“I don’t know if that’s because it’s cumulative or what… [But] an alcoholic or an addict in their own company is in very, very bad company. So what’s happening is that people are losing the connection. When they lose the connection, their disease starts to take over.”

Auckland-based addictions therapist Bridget Wilson​, who specialises in harmful sexual behaviour, had also seen a “huge” increase in people seeking her help since a Covid-19 community outbreak plunged the region into lockdown in August.

“There [have] been issues where people have nearly died because they just can’t cope with the stress of what’s going on with the pandemic.”

Bridget Wilson is an Auckland-based addictions therapist. She’s seen a huge increase in need for addictions support over lockdown.

LAWRENCE SMITH/Stuff

Bridget Wilson is an Auckland-based addictions therapist. She’s seen a huge increase in need for addictions support over lockdown.

She put this down to stress levels being higher, as Auckland’s lockdown dragged on.

“I’m getting heaps more inquiries about people who are getting in trouble through their sexual acting out, using online porn, having extramarital hookups. There’s a lot of webcam stuff.

“I think the anxiety is higher… The second time this is real, and we’re getting burn out, and we’re seeing people brought in for old behaviours they may have ordinarily been able to manage.”

For Auckland dad John*​ lockdowns exacerbated a binge-drinking problem he’d lived with for the past two decades.

He said lockdown was a “recipe for disaster” for alcoholics because they had no reason to go out.

“I was drinking every day, excessively… I was probably getting close to a bottle of vodka a day.”

John's drinking had been a problem for 20 years, but got out of control during the last few lockdowns. (Generic file photo)

123rf

John’s drinking had been a problem for 20 years, but got out of control during the last few lockdowns. (Generic file photo)

About two weeks before the start of lockdown, after family members raised concerns, he checked into The Retreat.

He found the group sessions, with other alcoholics, particularly helpful as they understood what he was going through.

After completing a 30-day residential programme, the 46-year-old returned home, and to work.

With support from friends and family he’s stayed sober.

Addiction specialists say lockdown is the worst time for addicts because of the physical and social isolation. (File photo)

John Kirk-Anderson/Stuff

Addiction specialists say lockdown is the worst time for addicts because of the physical and social isolation. (File photo)

“I don’t really know how I was still working, I was still co-parenting… That wouldn’t have lasted too much longer, everything would have fallen apart. I was lucky enough that I had enough clarity to ask for help.”

NZ Drug Foundation executive director Sarah Helm​ said most services for alcohol and substance addiction support had seen “marked” increases in demand, from people returning to treatment, children of addicts and people asking for help for the first time, but others had seen no change.

People in addiction treatment had some of the lowest Pfizer vaccination rates and the organisation wanted to see more Government support to get them jabbed because drug users were at higher risk of catching the virus and more likely to get very sick if they did.

Helm hoped district health boards would better resource mental health and addiction services as part of their planning for more widespread transmission of Covid because they could be put under added stress as case numbers rose.

“Addiction treatment was already over-subscribed before lockdown. Lengthy waitlists can mean a window of opportunity is lost for the person needing help.”

The Ministry of Health was unable to provide data for publicly funded residential addiction treatment services.

However, demand for its community alcohol and drugs support service received an average of 4897 referrals per month this year, compared to 4834 in 2020 and 5415 in 2019.

Wait times for alcohol and drug treatment for new clients had improved, with 90 per cent seen within three weeks in April 2021, up from 62 per cent in at the same time last year, during the first lockdown.

In a statement, the Ministry acknowledged the pandemic could have an adverse impact on vulnerable people. That was why it had increased the number of GP clinics offering Integrated Primary Mental Health and Addiction Services, used by about 11,000 people per month.

The Government had budgeted $42 million over four years to improving existing specialist drug addiction services and invested $14m in community responses for alcohol and drug problems.

”This has enabled the establishment of new services along with an increase in funding for existing specialist services delivered by non-government organisations to increase sustainability and improve service quality.”

*Name changed to protect person’s privacy.

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