I was talking to a good friend and colleague recently about the impact of COVID-19 on our local court system and criminal defense community. We were lamenting that, on the whole, we, the criminal defense lawyers, seem to be the only moving part in the process – going to and from the jail and courthouse to facilitate pleas (even if doing pleas via Zoom). It was a role we undertook, understanding it placed us at risk, as we, and our clients, were largely the only live and in-person components of the criminal justice system. And now, as was inevitable, the jails are experiencing a rash of COVID-19 cases. The anxiety we are experiencing is real and palpable. The backdrop this pandemic is creating is just as real.
Consider the impact of this constant hum of worry on someone struggling with substance abuse, where the very “triggers” for use might well be the stress and anxiety that are now constants for all of us. The unintended hardship COVID-19 is creating in our communities, especially for those struggling with substance use disorder, is impossible to ignore: inability to attend in-person AA/NA meetings; loss of jobs; loss of housing; isolation; working in less-than-safe conditions; finding treatment facilities that are able to take new patients; and many, many more. Telehealth is an answer to many of these problems, but it’s less than ideal given the importance of face-to-face connection, physical contact with others, and the role environment all play in therapeutic communication. As we all know and have experienced at this point, there is just no substitute for face-face connection – for actual eye contact with a person rather than starring at one’s reflection and the two-dimensional faces of others on a screen.
Make no mistake, the economic and social conditions created by the pandemic are devastating, and the collateral impact of COVID-19 on those struggling with substance use disorder is real, and places serious impediments to the recovery of some. It is well-publicized that alcohol sales were up during the shut-down and have remained above normal. What we lack, presently, is data regarding illicit drug sales and drug use. It stands to reason though that drug use and sales have risen also in response to the uncertainty.
Thousands of people die each year in the US from drug overdose in a normal (re: non-pandemic) year. Over the last two decades, the number has grown close to 600,000 people who have been lost to drug overdose. The number of overdose deaths in the US for 2018 (the most recent year for which there are statistics) exceeds 67,000, according to the CDC. COVID-19 has far eclipsed that number but will-inevitably and directly increase the number of overdose-related deaths during this pandemic. The backdrop this pandemic is creating for those struggling with substance use disorder is real, and is scary.
August 31st is International Overdose Awareness Day. The goal of IOAD is to raise awareness of overdose and reduce the stigma of overdose deaths. It also acknowledges the grief felt by family and friends remembering those who have died or had a permanent injury as a result of drug overdose. That grief is real and should not be stigmatized. IOAD spreads the message that overdose death is entirely preventable. That is worth considering again: Unlike deaths from other diseases or viruses, deaths from drug overdose are 100 percent preventable.
Maybe we can all do our part, however small, to help prevent an overdose. Let’s pick up the phone and call that client who may be struggling – not to talk about their case but just to talk to them, to check in with them and see if there is anything we can do to help them, to let them know you care. Talk to the client who has the state jail possession charge about their substance use. We all know odds are that it’s not the first time that person has used. Know the substance abuse resources in your area. Let’s be a lifeline to that person.