Lockdown Mania vs. the People

Has anyone ever wondered what drug dealers did during COVID-related lockdowns? Or how people struggling with substance abuse were affected? Dealers kept selling and people suffered. Even though drugs, alcohol, and marijuana remained readily available, many treatment centers had to shut down, peer recovery groups and mutual aid networks were shuttered, as churches were unavailable to meet the needs of those reaching out for help. Prolonged lockdowns were a petri dish for addiction and adverse mental health conditions.  

In December 2021, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky announced that the COVID-19 isolation mandates were implemented based upon what people could “tolerate.” This statement indicates that the COVID-19 remediation policies and mandated restrictions made assumptions about human behavior, and were not solely based in the physical sciences of epidemiology and virology. Americans in many parts of the country are just now, after two years, emerging from draconian COVID policies, and the hard data support the notion that the “tolerance levels” for many vulnerable people were greatly exceeded. The CDC has reported that during the lockdowns our nation experienced the highest level of drug overdose deaths in history, with over 100,000 fatalities.  

Furthermore, the CDC reported in June 2020 that Americans were experiencing increased symptoms of declining mental health. In assessing “tolerance” the CDC seemed to ignore its own survey data as 31.9 percent of respondents reported increases in anxiety and depression, 40 percent reported to be suffering from at least one adverse mental health condition, 26 percent said they were experiencing trauma, and another 13 percent reported an increase in substance abuse to cope with negative stress. A reasonable person could ask why this information wasn’t considered in assessing the tolerance levels of vulnerable people. One doesn’t need a medical degree to know that increasing mood-altering substance use to offset negative feelings will likely either exacerbate existing substance use disorder or create one. 

If the extended lockdowns weren’t distressing enough, the media chipped in by running a 24/7 COVID death-o-meter. This graphic was a permanent fixture on TV screens throughout the nation. Viewers were barraged with an incessant visual accounting of all those who had died, were about to die, or might as well die. The only thing missing was a bottle of scotch to numb the fear of a pending apocalypse, since liquor stores and pot shops remained open throughout the shutdown. Then in perfect synchronicity, the death-o-meters magically disappeared from the media like a canceled celebrity’s apology.

Unfortunately, human beings are complex; their mental health difficulties and drug addiction don’t respond as readily to a shift in the political agenda as quickly or easily as the news cycle demands. Sadly, it appears those who indulged in this sensationalism will not pay any price for the great harm they inflicted. 

It was sparsely reported, but during the lockdowns, juveniles accounted for half of all calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which represented an all-time high for underaged callers. The adverse residual effects of trauma do not necessarily end after the immediate effect subsides. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is aptly named as it indicates that even after the traumatic stimulus has ceased, people are left suffering with the recurrent effects of anxiety, fear, and avoidance as result of their exposure to the traumatic episode. These adverse reactions generally need to be extinguished during the treatment process. While not everyone exposed to trauma will develop PTSD symptoms, there has been a measurable rise in anxiety-related disorders and trauma. Only time will tell how young children will be ultimately affected by extended lockdowns and forced masking.

The brunt of the economic shutdowns and the shuttering of small businesses seems to have fallen most heavily on the backs of working people. As a result of this enforced economic devastation, people were robbed of their sense of accomplishment, financial independence, and the ability to derive meaning from their lives. As people suffered from economic insecurity the international drug traffickers appear to have adapted well. According to the Congressional Research Service, during the pandemic the cartels ramped up their fentanyl production and pill pressing operations—which greatly increased overdoses from synthetic opioids. 

The holistic approach to treatment recognizes each person as a whole being, including mind, body, spirit, cultural attributes, and surrounding environment. Many people with a severe substance use disorder are far more susceptible to the disease of addiction than they are to COVID-19. Instead of a top-down mandated policy for COVID-19 remediation, it would have been more beneficial to consider individual characteristics, viral susceptibility, and behavioral and mental health needs. Furthermore, boredom is a huge factor contributing to youth substance abuse as many young people inclined towards substance misuse are often dependent upon immediate gratification. 

The New York Times reported earlier this month that vaccinations are a valuable tool against COVID-19, but restrictive remediation and social isolation were largely ineffective. The Times also included in their findings that behavioral health concerns such as overdoses, violent crime, and car crashes all increased due to the extended period of social isolation. Along these same lines, if COVID-19 lockdowns were a social experiment, we learned that fear, anxiety, unemployment, depression, and social isolation are the perfect ingredients for addiction. 

Despite this gloomy picture, after every dark night follows the dawn, and the miracle of recovery will live on. Our hope is that once our nation reestablishes its footing and people regain their freedom, we will witness a vast improvement in mental health and drug overdoses. 

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About Art Kleinschmidt

Art Kleinschmidt, MBA, PhD is the former Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. He also served at HHS at the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Service Administration.

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