Treating substance abuse is trickier during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jim Scarpace, executive director at Gateway Foundation in Aurora, said that’s partly because social distancing, which helps keep the coronavirus contained, can also isolate people from their support systems.
For people struggling with substance abuse, this can mean isolation from family and friends, support groups and 12-step programs.
This is the opposite of what people struggling with addiction need to achieve and maintain recovery, Scarpace said.
Many people, understandably, were afraid to reach out for help between March and June when little was known about the coronavirus, Scarpace said.
Consequently, by the time people did reach out for help, their addictions were more severe, he added.
However, the increase in people reaching out for services doesn’t tell the entire story.
Although it seems counterintuitive, often the people most in need of services are the ones least likely to seek them out, he said. And the longer they wait, the more likely they will avoid reaching out..
“They start to believe they have no hope,” Scarpace said. “They think, ‘I’ll never be able to stop. This is who I am.’”
But Scarpace also said substance abuse does not improve on its own. And it can lead to death.
To keep in touch with its current clients, Gateway offers an alumni program. Volunteers in recovery call clients to check up on them, to see if they are doing well or if they need services, he said.
Scarpace said people ages 18 to 24 tend to abuse heroin or fentanyl. Opioid addictions in people age 30 and up often started with prescription drug abuse. Alcohol abuse runs the spectrum of ages, he said.
But this is certain.
“The older you are and the longer you have had the substance abuse, the worse it is,” Scarpace said.
Men have a harder time reaching out for treatment, and yet they make up approximately 60 percent of the clients,” Scarpace said.
Woman often delay seeking out treatment because they are often the ones with caretaking duties, so they tend to put their needs at the end, he said.
But that's not good.
“Their illness progresses further,” Scarpace said.
By the time women do reach out, their illness is more severe than the men’s, he said.
What about people of color?
For instance, on May 2, 2020, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Office of Behavioral Health Equity published "The Opioid Crisis and the Black/African American Population: An Urgent Issue," which offered some insight to substance abuse even before covid.
The same organization also published "The Opioid Crisis and the Hispanic/Latino Population: An Urgent Issue."
For instance, between 2015 to 2016, the drug overdose deaths of African Americans increased by 40% while the drug overdose deaths of the overall population increased by 21%.
In November, the American Medical Association said black patients were least likely to receive medication-assisted treatment for their opioid-use disorder due to insurance, cost and stigma.
On Thursday, Illinois received $36.7 million in federal funding to expand prevention, treatment, recovery and overdose response initiatives across the state, according to a news release from the state.
Scarpace said that, because Gateway is a nonprofit, a lack of health insurance doesn't keep clients from accessing services.
But people of color may hesitate for other reasons.
“I think that historically and culturally, African America clients are less likely to access treatment in general because of pride and privacy,” Scarpace said. “So we want to make sure we are opening that door and increasing access and reducing stigma."
Most of Gateway's Hispanic clients are bilingual, so language is not a barrier to treatment, Scarpace said. However, the clients' family members are often Spanish-speaking. In those cases, an interpreter is used, Scarpace said.
The takeaway is that addition is a disease, not a character or moral flaw, he said.
"This is something that can be managed," Scarpace said. "It’s nothing to be ashamed of."
Locally, Gateway has an intensive outpatient program in Joliet. But people can transfer to the Aurora facility if they need in-patient services, Scarpace said.
Gateway's role is to connect people to those services.
“We need to get people to the phone,” Scarpace said. “We have a 24-hour helpline: 877-505-HOPE or 877-505-4673."
Call Gateway Joliet at 877-352-9992. For more information, visit gatewayfoundation.org.