To the Editor:
It has been a rough year for all of us, but the past 12 months have been exceptionally difficult for those who struggle with substance use or mental health issues. Just when we thought we were seeing a plateau in the number of overdose deaths last year, COVID-19 reversed the progress we had made in a matter of months.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a record 81,230 overdose deaths were reported for the year ending in May 2020, which was an 18-percent increase over May 2019. This was the third consecutive month in which deaths increased significantly over the previous 12 months. Opioid-related deaths were the greatest factor in the rise, with a 38 percent increase for the year ending in June 2020. This hits close to home, as these deaths in Illinois rose 27 percent last year.
As someone who has given my professional life to helping people with behavioral healthcare needs, my heart is with those who are hurting now. It is difficult to manage life when you’re supposed to avoid close contact with friends and loved ones, especially with added stresses of economic challenges, disrupted family routines, and a barrage of scary headlines day after day. There is no doubt these things are huge factors in the overdose surge.
Let me offer encouragement as we look for better days ahead: The behavioral health epidemic won’t have the last word. We will get through this together if we look out for our friends, neighbors, and ourselves. Here are a few ways we can walk with confidence through the coming months:
• Stay connected, especially to those who may be more isolated because of the pandemic. We all need to be surrounded by people to thrive, and that is especially true for those in recovery. Make the most of digital communications and phone calls until it is warm enough to take advantage of socially-distanced gatherings outdoors.
• Encourage the difficult conversations about substance use and mental health disorders with family and friends, which will continue to break down social stigma that keeps these struggles behind closed doors. By caring enough to bring up the topic, you may be the encouragement someone needs to take the first steps toward recovery.
• Take care of yourself. If you’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or stressed, you’re more vulnerable to harmful thoughts, temptations to turn to destructive coping mechanisms, and physical illness. Take a short pause, slow down, and breathe when you notice you’re in one of these areas.
• Show grace to those around you. The past year has been tough on everyone, so don’t sweat the little things. Remember that the rude store clerk or frazzled nurse is under as much stress as you.
• Reach out for help, even if you’re not sure what you need. Find a trusted friend, mentor, religious leader, or counselor to confide in. The team at Rosecrance would love to meet with you and help you navigate your challenges.
And last, be well. Life’s waiting.
David Gomel, Ph.D.
President and CEO, Rosecrance
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