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The pandemic's impact on substance abuse is deadly

Treatment options for substance abuse and addiction

This article was last updated on April 27, 2022. 

While we have yet to fully understand the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we do know that substance use and abuse skyrocketed.

substance abuse statistics during COVID-19 pandemic

In one study, 13 percent of respondents either started or increased substance use External Site to cope with the stress and anxiety related to COVID-19 — and that was only during the first couple months of the pandemic.

During the pandemic, overdose deaths rose 29 percent External Site in 2020, to a record 93,000. Part of the reason for the rapid rise, according to health experts, was that pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions made it harder for those with drug addictions to get the treatment they needed.

“Anxiety, depression, isolation, stress or financial worries are triggers for a person with a substance use disorder or addiction External Site. They also threaten people who are at risk of developing a problem,” says Julie Enga, employer health and well-being team leader at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

Addiction by the numbers during COVID-19

While the pandemic impacted people of all ages, it had an especially large negative impact on the health and quality of life for millennials, those who were born between 1981 and 1996. In fact, 92 percent of millennials report that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their mental health.

According to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association’s Health of America Report External Site, six of the top-10 health conditions affecting millennials are related to mental health, and three of those conditions (alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse) are directly related to addiction.

While the fallout of the pandemic is yet to be determined, preliminary data surrounding the increase in substance use and abuse paints an alarming picture.

Alcohol use is on the rise

  • Adults under 40 were the most likely to report increased alcohol use (40 percent).
  • Adults with depression were 64 percent more likely to increase drinking, while those with anxiety were 41 percent more likely to do so.
  • The pandemic further increased rates of alcohol use in women, who upped their heavy drinking days by 41 percent External Site compared to before the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heavy drinking is defined External Site as more than three drinks per day or 7 or more drinks per week for women. For men, heavy drinking is defined as more than four drinks per day or more than 14 drinks per week.  
  • The increase in alcohol use could be fueling recent upticks External Site in cases of alcohol-related conditions, including alcoholic hepatitis and liver failure.

While excessive alcohol use can lead to all kinds of chronic diseases and serious problems, even moderate drinking can have serious, short-term impacts to one's overall health.

Misuse of opioids and stimulants External Site continued to grow

  • According to preliminary figures released by the CDC External Site, overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids like fentanyl External Site spiked by an unprecedented 55 percent during September 2019 to September 2020.
    • Fentanyl is a dangerously powerful opioid that was developed to treat intense pain, but has been sold illegally and mixed with other drugs.
  • Deaths from methamphetamines and other stimulants surged by roughly 46 percent during this time, an increase believed to be caused by drugs laced with fentanyl.

Smoking made a comeback

  • Smoking has been on the decline for the last 20 years. In 2020, it saw an increase, despite the fact that smoking doubles the risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms External Site.
  • About one-quarter of current smokers said they smoked more frequently during the pandemic.
  • Ten percent of the people who had quit smoking, restarted some form of tobacco use.

How to get treatment for substance abuse

Even before the pandemic, demand for mental health and substance use services was increasing. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made the situation more challenging. Here are a few ways to get the help you or your loved one needs:

  1. Review your benefits. Depending on your health insurance plan, you may have benefits for chemical dependency treatment. Before seeking treatment, Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield members can log in to myWellmark® Secure or call Wellmark Customer Service to check your coverage. Wellmark members can also log in to myWellmark to find an in-network mental health provider Secure.
  2. Try a virtual option. Virtual doctors, like the ones available through Doctor On Demand® External Site, are safe, convenient, and affordable, and can provide mental health services. For substance abuse or addiction, you may prefer in-person one-on-one counseling or group therapy sessions. Still, virtual visits are a great place to start for advice on the best treatment options for your situation.
  3. Find out if you have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If your employer offers an EAP External Site, it can provide you with resources and help for substance abuse, drug counseling and rehabilitation services. Check with your employer's human resources department if you need help getting connected.
  4. Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline.  This free, confidential service External Site is available 24/7, 365 days a year. Call 800-662-HELP (4357) to learn more about support groups, community-based organizations and treatment facilities in your area. Before seeking treatment at a facility, always be sure to check your coverage and network by logging in to myWellmark.
  5. Consider using the resources available through your state's public health department. Both the Iowa Department of Public Health External Site and South Dakota Department of Public Health External Site have resources available online to help connect you with health care providers and counselors for alcohol, drugs or mental health conditions. 

If you need immediate help, please call 911 or use the resources provided by the CDC External Site.

Doctor On Demand physicians do not prescribe Drug Enforcement Administration-controlled substances, and may elect not to treat conditions or prescribe other medications based on what is clinically appropriate.

For plans that include benefits for mental health treatment, Doctor On Demand benefits may include treatment for certain psychological conditions, emotional issues and chemical dependency. Services performed by Doctor On Demand psychologists are covered. For more information, call Wellmark at the number on your ID card.

Doctor On Demand by Included Health is a separate company providing an online telehealth solution for Wellmark members. Doctor On Demand® is a registered mark of Doctor On Demand, Inc.