With COVID-19 dominating headlines it can be easy to forget about other issues face by groups of people in society that haven’t gone away. Drug and alcohol abuse, for example, is still a prevalent issue that, if anything, is adversely impacted by the stress, uncertainty and economic upset accompanying this pandemic.
“I think certainly the whole COVID issue is having potentially a number of different impacts on people who might be having issues with substance use,” Dean Nicholson, executive director and substance use counsellor with East Kootenay Addiction Services Society (EKASS), told the Bulletin.
It’s too early to have official data showing an increase in drug and alcohol use yet, but Nicholson said it is known that people tend to turn to substances more in times of high stress and economic downturn.
Additionally, sales of liquor are up 40 per cent in B.C., but that could be attributed to both some people using alcohol more as well as people stocking up for fears of stores closing, or not wanting to leave the house due to social distancing protocols.
“I think if people have lost their job or if they’re worried about losing their job or other kind of impacts on your daily routine, we know that some people are going to cope by turning to whether it’s alcohol or other substances to manage that,” Nicholson explained. “So I think we could expect that there’s going to be an upturn.”
EKASS, as always, is there to help people dealing with substance use issues, although their offices throughout the East Kootenay are closed, they continue to provide services to all of their clients, including counselling which is now done through telephone or web-based contacts.
Their harm reduction supplies, naloxone kits, safer injection and inhalation kits are all still available through local pharmacies as EKASS continues to supply their community partners with that equipment.
“The face to face contact we’re not able to do but in terms of the services we provide those are continuing,” Nicholson said. “So we want people to know that first and foremost.”
Nicholson advises people to go to their website, www.ekass.com, for instruction on where they can get access to all of those resources and more.
One concern that was immediately raised in the wake of business shutdowns was that liquor stores would close as well.
“… for people who may be alcohol dependent and who are drinking regularly, if they were unable to get access to alcohol there’s a concern that they could go into alcohol withdrawal, which potentially can be fatal,” Nicholson explained.
He said that after seeing some provinces consider the total shutdown of liquor stores, they then reversed that decision, recognizing that in this case there is actually more risk for people through not having access to alcohol.
There is also the issue of alcohol-dependent people who are having to self-isolate, or who are unable to go out and purchase alcohol. While it’s not something EKASS currently does, something they are currently looking at is something called a managed alcohol program.
There isn’t one in this area, but many major urban centres have programs like this, that provide regular, daily alcohol distribution to ensure people aren’t going into alcohol withdrawal.
“Some of the larger centres in Canada particularly if they were sheltered based housing there would be a system where people could come daily to pick up alcohol throughout the day rather than having to get alcohol on the street or other non-beverage types of alcohol.”
Noting the upsurge in alcohol sales in the province amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Nicholson encourages everyone to look at their use patterns, saying that even if someone isn’t using in a way that’s causing them problems right now, they should still be mindful so they prevent themselves from increasing their use as a way of coping with stress.
“Certainly as an agency we recognize that there’s a healthy, social, responsible way that you can use alcohol or to use marijuana, and we don’t discourage people from healthy responsible use, but we certainly look at when people are using as a way of managing stress or managing uncomfortable feelings or managing negative situations,” he explained. “If they’re using to deal with that, that increases the risk that their use becomes problematic.”
Nicholson refers to the provincial lower risk drinking guidelines, which again can be found on the EKASS website.
“If people aren’t sure what a healthy amount of alcohol to use, there are guidelines that say if you’re using at this level then your risk of developing dependency or developing health problems are much lower.”
EKASS has also been posting links to other resources to help people manage stress and anxiety generally, but also in the face of this pandemic.
“We recognize that people are going to be more anxious and have some website links that give people guides on how to do that more effectively,” Nicholson said. “I know that there’s been a huge increase in online services.”
Finally, Nicholson said that because this pandemic is such a rapidly-evolving situation, what he’s said today might be different than what he says a week later, in terms of the programming that’s going on on how EKASS might be trying to respond. As issues that they perhaps haven’t yet thought of come to light, they will need to develop new protocols to respond to them.