Has COVID-19 Led to Increased Overdoses in Massachusetts?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our physical, emotional, and mental well-being in many different ways. Some people became sick physically, while others were affected socially and psychologically. Experiencing loss, being isolated from others, and having to adjust to a new way of life caused anxiety and stress that left many people struggling to find a way to cope. Some people coped by watching hours of Netflix. Others spent days video calling friends and loved ones. Some people tried to cope by drinking large amounts of alcohol, excessively consuming prescription pills, or using illicit drugs. Because of this, the COVID-19 virus has had an impact on addiction rates in Massachusetts.

Quick Facts About The COVID-19 Virus

COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) is a disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus discovered in Wuhan, China in 2019. The disease, which is very contagious and can spread quickly, most often causes respiratory symptoms that can feel like a cold, the flu, or pneumonia. Even though most people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms, some people become severely ill. People with underlying medical conditions have an increased risk of becoming severely ill.

When people contract COVID-19, they can experience a wide variety of symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Diarrhea

Currently, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from COVID-19. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been:

  • 79,766,087 COVID-19 cases in the country
  • 10,264 hospitalizations related to COVID-19
  • 974,277 COVID-19 deaths

Unfortunately, the effects of COVID-19 have not been limited to physical illness.

Mental, Social, & Emotional Effects Of COVID-19

The COVID-19 virus caused just as much mental, social, and emotional stress as it did physical harm. In May 2020, just months after the virus started to spread, reports showed that stress and anxiety levels had risen exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This unforeseen increase in stress and anxiety led to a number of mental, social, and emotional effects such as:

  • Fear. As the number of COVID-19 deaths continued to rise, many people experienced unbridled fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of illness. Fear of death. Many people also feared not being able to get the food and supplies they needed (including toilet paper, canned goods, and bottled water). Additionally, many people feared losing their jobs as unemployment rates sky-rocketed. That fear led many people to worry about their financial well-being.
  • Isolation. Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus is highly contagious, medical personnel and health care professionals encouraged people to remain socially distant from others. Individuals with COVID-19 had to isolate themselves from friends and family members for 10 to 14 days. People that were hospitalized weren’t allowed to have visitors. Research consistently shows that social isolation can make individuals more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders. Isolation can also increase the likelihood of high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
  • Burnout. Doctors, nurses, clinicians, therapists, psychologists, and other healthcare professionals experienced burnout. Burnout is a form of exhaustion that results from overwhelming and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. When individuals are burned out, they tend to experience the following symptoms:
    • Feeling drained
    • Tired
    • A lack of energy
    • Headaches
    • Stomach aches
    • Frustration
    • Reduced performance
    • Detachment
    • Low mood
    • Anxiety
    • Pessimism
    • Trouble sleeping
  • Depression. Not being able to socialize, dealing with high levels of grief and uncertainty, financial loss, and a lack of autonomy also left many people feeling depressed. According to a Boston University study, depression rates have tripled since the pandemic. When individuals feel depressed, they might also feel worthless, hopeless, moody, sad, fatigued, discontent, agitated, and irritable. Depression can also lead to addiction.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being that allows individuals to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively, and contribute to their community. In addition to causing physical harm, the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with individuals’ ability to cope with everyday life. As a result, many people tried to self-medicate themselves with drugs, alcohol, and prescription pills.

Unfortunately, all of these effects can lead to self-medication.

COVID-19 Effects and Self-Medication

Self-medication happens when individuals try to treat their challenges by relying on substances that can temporarily help them feel better. Most people self-medicate by using:

  • Legal substances such as food, alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine
  • Controlled substances such as prescription medications like opioids
  • Illegal substances such as methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, or ecstasy

Even though the situations and events that trigger self-medication can vary, most people self-medicate because they’re experiencing physical, emotional, or psychological pain. Specifically, many people use drugs and alcohol to:

  • Numb uncomfortable feelings. Dealing with unresolved trauma and emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse can evoke uncomfortable and distressing feelings. These emotions can feel overwhelming, making people want to numb the pain. When individuals feel this way, they might drink their discomfort away or take prescription painkillers to desensitize their feelings.
  • Experience temporary relief from stress and struggles. Family problems, work challenges, parenting woes, and financial and legal problems can make individuals want to escape the stresses of daily life. Since they can’t escape these struggles, many people turn to addictive substances as a temporary reprieve from the situation.
  • Cope with mental health challenges. Many people living with mental health challenges deal with debilitating and distressing emotions on a daily basis. Experiencing night terrors, hallucinations, paranoia, traumatizing flashbacks, unwanted thoughts, delusions, and insomnia can cause people to try to “treat” their condition with substances like drugs, alcohol, or prescription medications.
  • Fill an emotional void. Individuals lacking self-confidence and social support often turn to drugs and alcohol to fill emotional voids. Some individuals with low self-esteem drink to feel courageous. Others use stimulants to feel energetic and excited about life when they really feel lonely, depressed, neglected, or isolated.
  • Deal with grief. Grief is a normal part of life. However, losing a close friend or family member can stir up challenging and distressing emotions that people may try to self-medicate. Some individuals feel like drinking and using drugs is the only option they have to feel something other than grief and pain.
  • Experience pleasure. When drugs and alcohol enter the body and interact with the brain, they can produce pleasurable, euphoric effects. Individuals that have a challenging time feeling good or experiencing pleasure may turn to drugs or alcohol.

Sadly, the more people self-medicate, the more likely they are to develop an addiction, which can increase the number of people overdosing on drugs and alcohol.

Has COVID-19 Led To Increased Overdoses in Massachusetts?

Massachusetts has the 15th highest rate of drug use in the United States. Many people believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased overdoses in the state. Opioids like fentanyl have made up a large portion of the state’s drug use. In fact, fentanyl has become the state’s primary cause of opioid overdose and death.

In 2020, months after the pandemic began, more than 2,000 people living in the state died from an opioid overdose. In addition, statistics from the state’s government show that:

  • In 2020, 91.8% of opioid-related overdose deaths involved fentanyl. 16% of overdose deaths involved prescription opioids.
  • In the first nine months of 2021, there were 1,211 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths.
  • From January to September 2021, 50% of people who died of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts were between the ages of 25 and 44 years old.

Similarly, data from Massachusetts General Hospital shows that there was a significant increase in the proportion of stimulant overdose deaths in Massachusetts.

Other research shows that overdose deaths increased in almost every state during the first 8 months of 2020. The overdose death rate in Massachusetts increased by 2.9 percent.

Doing Our Part To Help Combat Overdose In Massachusetts

Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we’re proud to call Massachusetts home. That’s why we’re more than happy to do our part to help combat the state’s drug and alcohol crisis. We’ve designed our flexible outpatient treatment programs to help real people experience real recovery. Contact us today if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or may be at risk for overdose.