About a year after Kale Sisouvanh started treatment for drug addiction, the COVID outbreak disrupted his routine, and he said he’s lucky he wasn’t just starting rehab.
Sisouvanh, 24, said some of his regular group meetings at Awakenings, a Kelso treatment program, have been canceled, though he still can attend appointments with his counselor.
“Being able to go out, get out of the house and get around people three times a week really helps me stay clean,” he said. “If this happened early in my recovery, I wouldn’t be able to do this and would’ve fallen off the wagon.”
But the virus is expected to drive up the number of Americans grappling with mental health and or substance abuse disorders, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.
Coping with the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing measures can be especially difficult for those in recovery or with mental health problems, said Meghan DeGallier, mental health clinical manager for Awakenings.
“Support is in the form of other people, in human connection,” she said. “When there’s limited ability to be in communication face-to-face, it’s going to impact their recovery.”
Substance abuse and mental health problems are not easy to treat and require a multi-faceted approach, DeGallier said. If people aren’t getting full treatment they’ll see a decline in their well being, she said.
Awakenings is trying to offer as many services as possible, either online or in-person, DeGallier said. Mental health and recovery organizations are considered essential and are still able to meet with clients in-person if necessary.
“We don’t have big complex machines, but we are treating a disease here,” she said “There is a reason we’re open.”
Awakenings has changed many of its group and one-on-one meetings to telephone or video calls.
DeGallier said the mental health program is seeing at least as much engagement as before the pandemic because people need the support.
“There’s a lot of fear and unknown,” DeGallier said. Continuing services are “helping people and supporting them to help tolerate the ambiguity of it.”
Awakenings has moved its lobby around to promote social distancing, increased sanitation and offers masks to clients in for appointments, DeGallier said. Clients can meet with their counselors, but the organization is not holding group sessions in person, she said.
“The community is what provides support,” she said. “Social distancing has rapidly changed what that looks like.”
Sisouvanh said some of the support group meetings he normally attends are shut down. He can speak with fellow group members by phone or online, but not being able to see them in person is “an emotional thing.”
“I can’t wait for this thing to be over with and to get back to set schedule for things,” he said.
Sisouvanh said he’s more worried about those who lack rides to appointments or who are wavering in their recovery. Support groups and other meetings are important to continue, he said, especially for people early in recovery.
“When I was early on (in recovery) and got too stir crazy my outlet was to start using,” he said. “Being able to go somewhere and talk about those things would help a lot.”
Awakenings is offering Zoom meetings, and although they are not ideal they enable people to be a part of something, he said.
DeGallier said most clients have been responsive and grateful for the virtual options.
“There are times where people are stressed. We’ve seen folks have a difficult time with the adjustment of all of it and processing what’s going to happen next,” she said. “But for the most part, I see people getting surrounded with care.”
DeGallier said the sense of community among clients and colleagues has warmed her heart.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and that makes me incredibly proud,” she said.
Other local mental health and recovery services have adjusted their programs as well.
Columbia Wellness has limited hours for outpatient substance use and mental health services and is providing them virtually. The Wellness and Recovery Center and crisis services remain operational 24/7, although crisis services are primarily provided by telephone.
Core Health is also offering video and phone counseling sessions as well as in-person appointments.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Southwest Washington has moved its group meetings online.
Last month, Hello Life Eating Disorder Recovery began seeing an increase in people reaching out for help, said Shira Lile, executive director. The local nonprofit offers free peer support and connects clients to professional help and other resources.
Lile said from what Hello Life has seen, the pandemic has affected those with eating disorders across the board. People have been struggling with eating disorder behaviors and thoughts triggered by food insecurity, fear of food insecurity, large quantities of food at home that aren’t usually there, being in isolation and having little control of what’s happening around them, she said.
“At times of panic those behaviors can be comforting because it’s something that they know, and we’re living in such an unknown right now,” Lile said.
Lile said although the organization already offered some services online, in-person mentoring, support groups and body positive activities have been transitioned to virtual platforms. Hello Life has also seen an increase in requests for financial assistance for eating disorder recovery treatment, Lile said.