The COVID Crisis: Staying Sober And Drug-Free During The Coronavirus Pandemic

April 23, 2020

Social distancing is challenging for everyone, but it is especially difficult for people with substance -use disorders. In New York and other states under lockdown, people feel stressed, frightened, and isolated, conditions that may foster the urge to self-medicate and the potential for relapse.

“Whatever structures used to maintain sobriety by people with substance-use issues tend to fall away in a pandemic,” says Lawrence S. Brown, Jr., MD, MPH, FACP, DFASAM, CEO of START Treatment & Recovery Centers, a non-profit and New York’s largest independent drug treatment agency, which has treated more than 50,000 New Yorkers since it was founded 50-years ago.

“People who have lost proximity to support systems, programs, and relationships that help them stay sober may be tempted to self-medicate in order to deal with stress, anxiety, and isolation,” he adds. “In addition to substance-use disorders, many people are grappling with mental health issues and co-morbidities, including HIV, Hepatitis C, hypertension, and diabetes, that put them at higher risk for COVID-19.”

In these challenging times, Dr. Brown offers the following suggestions for people who are struggling:

Maintain healthy relationships

Relationships sustain us during these difficult times. Even when these relationships are challenging, family and friends offer a source of comfort and security for those who feel insecure. At times like this, having words like “I love you,” “I miss you,” and “I need you,” can be therapeutic.

Engage with treatment

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If you are connected with a treatment program, engaging more substantially will provide an even greater layer of protection. If you have a history of mental illness or substance abuse, take advantage of any prior resources to help you through this stressful time. If it is not possible to attend a meeting or counseling session personally, find out if there are other options. When appropriate, many programs offer tele-mental health or other distance counseling.

Many employers are also offering resources to help people cope when working from home. Many states are offering additional mental health services to residents trying to cope with the stress of the pandemic and stay at home orders. SAMSHA, the nationwide Substance Abuse, and Mental Health Services Administration has a website with information about providers in every state. Other organizations, including the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Public Health Association also have information available.

The benefit of remembering

For those who have a history of substance abuse, think about people places and things that played a role in your addiction issues. Remembering the past can help you avoid slips and relapses.

Recovery is a process

Recovery is a process, not just a destination. Sometimes people in recovery believe that since they have “gotten there,” they do not have to worry. Recovery means maintaining your state of being, state of health, and recognizing there is always the potential for a slip, a hiccup, or a lapse.

If you do slip:

Do not think of a slip as a failure that will lead to a binge and a total relapse. Instead, try to understand what led to the mistake and, most importantly, forgive yourself. Be aware that cravings are a normal part of recovery, and most relapses take place when people are stressed, feel negative emotions, or engage in triggering behavior.

Media in moderation

Watching too much news can raise stress levels. If you‘re going to look at media, stick to recognized authorities like the CDC or the Department of Health. Avoid inaccurate sources and information.

The silver lining

Many families are finding new opportunities to know more about one another and become closer. Finding support among family and friends is not a sign of weakness. The irony of our current isolation is that we can only get through this together. Living through this difficult time will provide opportunities for all of us to become more resilient, self-reliant, and confident.

START has treated over 50,000 New Yorkers throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx since it was founded in 1969. Its goal is to provide the highest quality of compassionate, comprehensive, evidence-based healthcare and social services; education of the public concerning the maintenance of healthy lifestyles; and cutting-edge behavioral, biomedical, and healthcare services research.

Its community-based treatment programs for adults and adolescents use individual and group counseling with medical and behavioral health professionals to treat patients; some of its clinics offer short-term, outpatient detoxification and a drug-free chemical dependency program for other non-opiate addictions. Its outpatient services and programs for people seeking quality treatment for drug addiction and rehabilitation include comprehensive medical care and specialized HIV services; behavioral health and vocational services; and medical case management.

For more information, visit

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