According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the last week in June 2020, adults in the United States reported significantly higher adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19. Nearly 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health issues, and this emotional toll is leading to increases in drug and alcohol abuse. Left unaddressed, drug and alcohol abuse can lead to a substance use disorder, which is different and more problematic than misuse or even heavy use.

A key indicator that drug or alcohol use has progressed to a substance use disorder is continued use—despite negative consequences. Examples include continuing to drive a vehicle even though accidents or criminal charges have resulted; lack of attention to the needs of one’s children; major performance issues at school or on the job; compromising sexual activity; and extreme emotional experiences (e.g. anger, depressed mood or suicidal thoughts). Ultimately, such negative consequences impact not just an individual but everyone in that person’s life.

Once substance use has progressed to a substance use disorder, changes in the brain chemistry can significantly limit one’s ability to quit or cut down even if there is a strong desire to do so.  At this point, support is often necessary to address the substance use disorder successfully.

Understanding addiction from the outside

From the outside, people often only see individuals’ behaviors and perhaps judge others who continue to use drugs or drink despite being fired from a job, who lack the ability to pay their bills, or who continually lie about where they were and what they were doing. Observers are often baffled how someone they love can continue to make such self-destructive decisions.

That’s why it’s important to look at what is going on beneath the behavior. Understanding what happens to a person’s biology when they cross over the invisible line from substance use into a substance use disorder is critical—for the individual and that person’s family, loved ones, friends and community.

Many people use alcohol or drugs to relax. Some take certain addictive pain medications as prescribed and then quit with no issue. However, there is a smaller group of individuals who have a different brain chemistry that makes them vulnerable to a craving not experienced by other people.

Research shows that being vulnerable to developing a substance use disorder is often related to a history of trauma. For those individuals, the use of drugs and alcohol begins as a way to avoid emotional pain from traumatic experiences that have never been addressed. Substance use provides a short-term means of coping, relaxing, or relief. However, if that use progresses into drug addiction or alcoholism, i.e., a substance use disorder, the substance no longer provides an escape, but instead amplifies feelings such as stress, loneliness and anger. An individual can also lose the biological ability to quit without help, even though the person may try to combat the disorder.

The good news is that research has identified key ways that people suffering from a substance use disorder can experience recovery. Counselors, peer specialists and treatment professionals are available. Like-minded community groups and faith partnerships also offer support for such individuals as well as their families and friends.

How can you help?

If you are struggling from a substance use disorder, or know someone who is, there are ways to support recovery.

  • Learn more about substance use disorders to gain a better understanding of what you or your loved one or friend is experiencing so you can be more empathetic and supportive.
  • Understand that the negative behaviors are intended to be coping strategies for overwhelming experiences.
  • Provide a safe, non-judgmental place for the person to openly discuss what’s behind their behavior and how they are feeling. If you are the one struggling, look for a safe place to tell your story. That safe setting may be with a parent, a friend, or a counselor.
  • Learn to recognize signs of a substance use disorder or the progression from misuse to a disorder.
  • Understand that you can’t do this alone. It’s OK to reach out and get help. Professional or community support from people who understand and know how to provide trauma-informed care can help you or your loved one heal and recover.

The recent pandemic has impacted all of us in one way or another, but it has been especially hard on those who were already burdened by other traumas and are dealing with substance abuse issues. By learning to Recognize Trauma and acknowledge those struggles, we can do a better job of caring for the people in our lives who are using drugs and alcohol to mask their pain while destroying themselves. We can help them heal from the inside out and when we do, we will Rise Together as a community.

Rane Wallace, LPC, LCDC, SAP is the founder of Fort Wellness Counseling, a trauma-informed private practice counseling facility that offers trauma-informed therapy and specializes in issues related to substance abuse.  Visit www.fortwellness.com for more information.

Virginia Hoft, LCDC, MAC II, Executive Director of Mental Health Connection, has 30 years of experience working in the field of substance use.  Visit www.mentalhealthconnection.com for more information.