August 1, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 292 — What the pandemic taught us about substance use disorder treatment

Stay-at-home orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted many facets of our lives and created many barriers, particularly for those in recovery for substance use disorder. But a study by IU researchers found that despite these challenges, those with substance use disorder were largely resilient and employed effective coping mechanisms. The researchers say their findings, recently published in the journal Plos One, can help inform prevention and treatment of substance use disorder amid disaster preparedness. Research Study Coordinator Katherine Shircliff says the study helped them identify barriers and stressors to those in recovery, as well as ways to help those with substance use disorder maintain their recovery during devastating events such as the pandemic. They found that prioritizing treating mental health and encouraging self-care are important points of planning and prevention. The researchers conducted personal interviews with 48 individuals, ranging from 26 to 60 years old, and measured pandemic-related barriers for recovery, methods used to cope with cravings and how these barriers and methods would predict substance use frequency. Some of the reported barriers included canceled support meetings, changes in job format such as being fired or furloughed, and a lack of social support. Worsened mental health was also reported as a barrier, with those who reported this barrier demonstrating a stronger relationship between baseline cravings and subsequent substance use than those who did not. According to the study, patients who struggled with worsened mental health during the early days of the pandemic had a stronger relationship between substance cravings at the start of their recovery and subsequent use, compared to those who didn’t report having poor mental health. Feelings of stress related to perceived risk of contracting COVID-19 also played a role, with 58 percent of participants perceiving themselves at greater risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, as opposed to 30 percent in a general adult sample. Likewise, though following health guidelines was reported by participants as a facilitator to recovery, findings suggest that following these guidelines may have had a negative impact on mental health. The researchers say that although isolation may have served as a coping mechanism in that it kept individuals physically safe, doing so may have also distanced individuals from integral supports and worsened their ability to cope with substance cravings. Despite the challenges faced, most participants showed resiliency and made use of effective coping strategies such as participating in self-care, hobbies, and leisure activities; taking caution against exposure; and strengthening personal relationships. Self-care proved to be an effective protective factor for study participants, as no one who reported self-care as a coping mechanism reported substance use during follow-up interviews. Psychology Professor Melissa Cyders says that amid future large-scale interruptions to treatment, self-care strategies such as reflection and prayer, journaling and positive self-talk can be particularly effective because these activities can be engaged regardless of external circumstances. Cyders says prioritizing mental health and encouraging self-care would be important should substance use treatments be interrupted in the future.