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How The Pandemic Has Impacted Pittsburghers Struggling With Addiction

Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA

Before COVID-19, public health officials and medical professionals were already struggling to curtail the drug overdose epidemic. But the situation worsened after the coronavirus pandemic hit. From 2019 to 2020, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 29% increase in fatal drug overdoses in the U.S.

For WESA’s series on the pandemic’s impact on mental health, Sarah Boden speaks with Jen Ackerson, a therapist who provides outpatient treatment at Jade Wellness Center. Ackerson says since the spring of 2020, more people are relapsing or developing new addictions, which has caused Jade Wellness to hire more staff.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah Boden: The isolation that many people experienced during the pandemic caused some to drink a lot more. In what ways does being alone contribute to problematic alcohol use?

Jen Ackerson: Isolation and loneliness looks a lot like hunger in the brain. So, we start looking to get relief from something anywhere and it's often not the most healthy decision. When I'm feeling hungry, I'm going to go for fast food and maybe a whole chocolate cake. And so for somebody in recovery — like hunger is to chocolate cake — it's going to look like addiction is to heroin or alcohol, or maybe some painkillers. Then our brain gets rewarded. We did something that works, that kind of met that need, but it doesn't actually heal the underlying problem. We should be looking for a social connection instead of something that's just going to temporarily meet a need.

Boden: Something I've always wondered [about is] how can someone drink alcohol their entire adult life, and then an event like the pandemic happens, so they may be drinking more to self medicate, perhaps. But how does that dependency form? Like, why can't they just go back to normal when life goes back to normal?

Ackerson: Hmm. That's a good question. It has a lot to do with what's going on in our brain, sort of how I was discussing hunger. We have a reward system built into our brain. So when we meet a need, dopamine gets released and we feel rewarded. We feel good about meeting that need. So, instead of using people and social situations to kind of meet the needs for loneliness, now we might be using alcohol or other substances. And so there's literally a change, or a transformation, that happens within the brain where no longer are we looking for people to meet that need. We're now looking for a substance.

Boden: Regarding overdose deaths both locally and nationally, they rose from 2019 to 2020. In Pennsylvania, CDC data show a 16% increase. Are there more overdose fatalities because people are using more? Or are there other factors at play?

Ackerson: I believe people are using more. The isolation is definitely part of it. Or, more people might be using alone [when] as before the pandemic, they might be with somebody else that could potentially give them naloxone — the lifesaving medication that would bring them back from an overdose. There is also a higher significance people are coming in and they're asking for help, they might identify their substance of choice as a stimulant. But there also happens to be opioids or fentanyl in their systems when they're coming to a seeking treatment, where they didn't previously know that they were ingesting any kind of opioid.

Boden: We were talking about isolation. Besides isolation, are there other conditions driving problematic alcohol and drug use?

Ackerson: I think there's also been a lot of grief that we've been experiencing as a community and just as a people in general of losing loved ones, but also grieving the loss of the life that we used to be living. And suddenly we're alone in that coping.

Boden: One of the cruelest things about COVID is that the pain is so universal. The isolation has been so horrible for so many of us, but we're all suffering a very similar thing by ourselves.

Ackerson: There's kind of a beauty in that. Even in the aloneness, we're all together doing it. And so I might feel really stressed or having a hard time coping [but] I know that my neighbors are probably already in the same place. And so what a great person for me to reach out to support from and to, because I know that everybody else is going through this at the same time.

This story was produced as part of "Pittsburgh's Missing Bridges," a collaborative reporting project by the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.