CASPER, Wyo — Quarantines, unemployment, political upheaval, and the host of other issues stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have taken a toll on the substance abuse recovery community.
“A lot of people have relapsed, I’ll say that.” said Jeremy Jones, executive director of the 12-24 Club. The Club hosts a range of 12-Step-based recovery program meetings that are free and open to anyone with an interest in addiction and recovery.
“Since March, people who were maybe on the edge of addiction before — heavy drinkers, casual drug users — have crossed the line into full-blown addiction,” Jones told Oil City News.
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“It’s not uncommon to see five brand new people in a meeting,” he said, adding that he’s seen triple the number of people reaching out to the 12-24 Club for the first time since the pandemic began.
“It’s kind of an alarming sign of the times,” he said.
The 12-24 Club had been open every day since opening in Casper in 1993: “We’re only open on the days people drink or abuse drugs,” Dan Cantine, the Club’s founder, often said.
That changed in mid-March, when the Club closed like many public places due to statewide health orders put in place to stem the impact of the pandemic. Meetings promptly moved online, but testimony at the Club’s first in-person meetings upon re-opening June 1 indicated that quarantine had exacerbated addition and mental health issues.
“That first week back was eerie,” Jones said. “They had their lifeline to the community severed. It’s been very stressful for a lot of people in the recovery program. It’s a testament to how important this place is to the recovery community.”
“Addiction wants us to isolate,” Jones said. He added that stress often causes people to subconsciously give themselves permission to self-medicate.
The situation reflects national trends and scientific findings. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study in June in this year found that reported symptoms of anxiety disorders were 3 times that of those reported in the second quarter of 2019. Depressive symptoms quadrupled over the same time period.
Reports of suicidal ideation also doubled compared to findings in 2018.
The study found that “young adults, Hispanic persons, black persons, essential workers, unpaid caregivers for adults, and those receiving treatment for preexisting psychiatric conditions,” were disproportionately affected.
Jones noted that those struggling with addiction, particularly young people, often can’t explain to others or even understand for themselves why they persist in self-destructive behavior.
“It’s a terrifying and lonely place to be,” Jones said.
State resources for mental health services are facing cuts due to Wyoming’s projected $1.25 billion budget shortfall for the coming biennium. The Department of Health took a $90 million cut, which amounts to $116.5 million with the loss of federal matching funds.
12-step recovery programs have been increasingly shown to be the most effective measure against these mental health issues.
A peer-reviewed Stanford University School of Medicine study published in March of this year found that the Alcoholic Anonymous program specifically was more effective and less costly in achieving alcohol abstinence than psychotherapy, and also saved on health care costs.
AA works because it’s based on social interaction, said Keith Humphreys, the study’s lead co-author. He noted that members give one another emotional support as well as practical tips to refrain from drinking.
“If you want to change your behavior, find some other people who are trying to make the same change,” Humphrey’s said.
Jones said the 12-24 Club is not specifically affiliated with AA, but serves as a hub for a range of 12-step recovery-based programs. He added that participation in the club’s services requires no particular affiliation or committment.
“Most of our meetings are open to anyone with an interest in substance abuse,” Jones said. “Just go and listen, take it or leave it; you don’t have to talk to anybody or do anything other than just walk into the room.”
Jones said the Club is being diligent about following health protocols during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. All surfaces are sanitized before and after meetings, hand-sanitizing stations are located throughout the building, and seating arrangements have been distanced in the fellowship rooms.
“People wear the masks; it’s a non-issue,” Jones said, adding that masks are required by guests and staff and are available to those who don’t have them.
Virtual meetings are still available, Jones said, and added that some older and immunocompromised participants are still opting for the online meetings. Jones noted that addiction itself weakens the immune system, and those fresh to recovery are often susceptible to illness.
The Club has had to make some cuts to it’s program: the Club’s Fresh Start Cafe remains closed, and Jones noted that addiction often takes a toll on a person’s nutrient intake.
The Club’s annual fundraiser, the Recovery Rally, won’t feature a gala dinner this year, but will instead be a Recovery Raffle, with a $1,500 cash and game meat donated by 4-H among the prizes.