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The social distancing that’s required to reduce the spread of the coronavirus also creates problems for agencies dealing with substance abuse issues in the community.
For people coping with addictions, face-to-face meetings are often a major part of recovery. Groups meetings have been discouraged, however, as the United States and much of the world tries to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.
“I feel like we’re working twice as hard right now, despite not having access to each other or our office,” Bevan Allen, director of operations for Compass Mark in Lebanon County, said Wednesday.
“Folks are really triggered right now by social distancing,” she said. “People who are in recovery have had their whole routine disrupted. Those routines are essential to their success.”
While people have been asked to limit their interactions with others, that doesn’t mean they can’t stay in contact, Allen said.
“It’s critical that people reach out,” she said. “If you’re aware of someone who’s in recovery or who’s experiencing use – now’s the time to be checking on them, offering them support.
“The isolation that people are experiencing right now if full of risk. We have to step out of our own boxes and be there for one another. We’re all in the same boat.”
James Donmoyer, executive director of Lebanon County Drug & Alcohol, said the agency is “considered essential, so we are open for business.”
But, because many county offices have been closed during the statewide shutdown, “we’re doing limited work,” he said. “We can still access our office space to some degree” although the Drug & Alcohol office is closed to the public.
“We’re pretty much working remotely,” Donmoyer said. However, he said, anyone calling the main office number during regular hours will reach someone, and the crisis intervention number is still available after hours.
“Honestly, not much has changed as far as being accessible to the public,” he said. “It’s just in a different way. Normally our office would be open. We’d take walk-ins.”
Donmoyer explained that Drug & Alcohol does not directly provide services to people dealing with addictions. Rather, he said, the office provides funding to other agencies that offer programs and treatment to the public.
And those agencies – such as Pennsylvania Counseling Services, New Perspectives and Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling – “are still up and running,” Donmoyer said.
They, too, are limited by how much in-person interaction they can offer, he said. Instead, they’re doing what they can by phone.
“At this point, they’re not getting people together for group sessions, obviously,” Donmoyer said. “But everyone is still receiving the help, the counseling that they need.
“But I don’t want to say it’s business as usual, because it’s not. This is uncharted waters for everybody. We all have to be a little creative.”
It’s still a work in progress, Donmoyer said, as service providers adapt to a new normal.
“The providers are the boots on the ground,” he said. “They’re still providing the services, but they can’t do it face to face. … It’s a definite shock to the system, and there’s going to be an adjustment period. This is going to be a day-to-day, ever-evolving situation.”
Donmoyer said he has reached out to all of the providers in Lebanon County, and he said “everyone is doing their part” to make remote communications work.
“This is a little overwhelming, but our mandate is to serve the public,” he said. “It seems like this might be in place for quite some time, so it’s not going to be a quick fix.
“The bottom line is, we are still open,” Donmoyer added. “Our office will continue to do what we have done in the past, but we are doing it differently. We would just ask for understanding, for patience, not just with our office but the whole system.
One problem caused by the abrupt cessation of services has been that people relying on agencies like Compass Mark have been left without closure, Allen said.
“Everything has been left hanging,” she explained. “We need to tap back into that.”
Compass Mark, with offices in Lebanon and Lancaster counties, works with grassroots organizations to provide support programs for people with addiction issues through education, skill-building and community mobilization.
“A large portion of what we do in Lebanon County is done in the schools and in the community,” Allen said. “Not having access to either made us really grateful to have access to technology.”
That means, for instance, arranging video conferencing when possible so people can meet remotely, she said.
“We also restructured our phone system so we can still respond to help calls that come in” while most of Compass Mark’s staff work from home.
Compass Mark has been using social media tools, such as Facebook, to reinforce the importance of “soft skills” such as leadership and decision-making to help people cope with the temptations of addiction.
Much of Compass Mark’s work is through local schools, and she said many young people need those skills to resist the urge to fill their free time with addictive behaviors.
“If kids have those soft skills, they can navigate the problems in their lives better,” Allen said. “Every person in their life experiences different levels of risk. You could be born into it. It could be a loss. It could be a move, or your parents divorce.”
The better alternative, she said, is to “fill their spaces with something healthy.”
The agency is coordinating with local school districts to piggyback some of their programs on school networks, she said. They’re also working to develop more online programs, although she acknowledged that digital resources are more accessible to “tech-savvy” younger generations but might not be as helpful to older people with similar needs.
At times like this, Allen noted, people often think less about dealing with substance abuse.
“It’s like Christmas time,” she said. “People are not thinking about dealing with a substance abuse problem around Christmas. This is similar. Folks are preoccupied with the whole coronavirus crisis.”
The sudden closure of state-run liquor stores has also caused some problems, Allen said.
People with alcohol addiction issues can suffer significant health problems, even death, if they are forced to go cold-turkey, she explained.
“It’s really important that we have that conversation,” she said. “It’s a time-sensitive conversation. There are people now who are experiencing alcohol withdrawal, and they need detoxification. The physical response to withdrawal is grueling – I have no doubt that people are in jeopardy right now.”
“That’s a big concern of ours as well,” Donmoyer said. “People who are alcoholic and get their alcohol from state stores – they can’t do that any more.”
Alcohol withdrawal “is pretty serious. It can be a life-threatening situation,” he said. “Those people would need detox. … Our office is open if people are suffering withdrawal. We can get them into detox.”
Donmoyer said he expects agencies will see an uptick in services that are alcohol-related, possibly even exceeding opioid issues for the time being.
To help address the problem, the Lebanon Area Alcoholics Anonymous has taken its meetings online.
On its website, lebanonpaaa.org, the local AA provides instructions for once- or twice-daily online meetings
Participants can use a web link, which lets people engage in a group chat to see each other as they speak, or on any kind of phone, smart or otherwise, which allows participants to speak and hear but not see.
Another issue to consider, Allen said, is a gambling addiction. Casinos are shut down, she said, but people stuck in their homes might turn to online gambling sites that can cause addicts to neglect pressing matters at home.
Compass Mark’s phone lines are still manned every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Allen said, and the agency is responding to posts and private messages and sharing resources on its Facebook page, too. There are options for staying in touch, she said, such as online 12-step groups and telehealth programs, as well as a simple phone call to someone who will listen.
Nicole Maurer, executive director of the Community Health Council of Lebanon County, is also gathering resources online, Allen noted.
Most importantly, she said, “folks have got to be checking on one another and reaching out. That’s what’s going to get us to the other end.”
Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.
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