Many Addiction Recovery Meetings Canceled During COVID-19 Crisis

May 15, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis disrupted life for everyone. But it's a unique challenge for those battling addiction. In-person meetings are often an essential part of the recovery process. Those in the recovery community are finding new ways to meet those needs during the coronavirus pandemic.

Shelby Pratt lives in Indianapolis and is almost 18 months sober. She says a big part of her recovery was attending 12-step meetings. But now with social distancing, she and others can’t go to meetings for people recovering from addiction to alcohol, narcotics and heroin. 

“I know several people including myself that would love to just get out and hit a meeting. You know it’s very vital, meetings, readings, studying our AA, NA, HA books. All of that is very vital to our sobriety,” Pratt says.

Pratt says without meetings and resources, there’s a good chance people might relapse.

“You know, it's going to be hard for a lot of people it really is, especially people that are early on in their sobriety, even people that are 25 years strong,” she says.

 It is a concern shared by medical professionals. According to the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, the state’s addiction hotlines have seen an increase in calls during the coronavirus pandemic. While it normally receives 20 calls a week, it is now seeing 20 a day. 

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says the coronavirus pandemic creates widespread stress—even for people who aren’t infected with the virus.

“Everybody, everyone in the United States and other areas of the world are exposed to the stress of COVID,” she says. “And stress is one of the factors that lead to relapse.”

Volkow says it’s crucial for recovery programs to adapt to the new social limitations.

Brandon George, director of the advocacy group Indiana Addictions Issues Coalition, says many people with substance use disorder rely on recovery support services—like 12-step programs.

"They are shutting down," George says. "The churches that host the meetings are saying, 'Hey, you can’t meet here anymore.'"

George says Indiana’s recovery community is robust and there are usually more than 500 meetings every week. But most occur in places like church basements or community centers. And because of the "Stay-At-Home" order to help stop the spread of COVID-19, those meetings can’t take place.

“So, the reason we have that many is that many people attend them,” George says. “And so, you go from that to almost nothing in a matter of a week. And that's a big change.”

As the novel coronavirus crisis intensified, the addiction recovery community adjusted the way they operate.

That’s how the Peer-2-Peer virtual recovery meetings came about. They’re video conference meetings held three times a day, Monday through Friday.

George says they knew people across the state would host meetings with good intentions, but it was important people had access to meetings facilitated by trained recovery coaches. “We thought it was really important to make sure that the state had a number of meetings that were done by people who were certified and had ethical standards and that people could trust to send people to these meetings.”

Treatment centers are also adapting during the pandemic. 

Mick Schoenradt, director of addiction services at Valley Oaks Health in Lafayette, has been doing new client intakes over the phone because of the social distancing orders.

“And in addictions, it's kind of tough to not see people face to face because it's that accountability with each other having groups, individual sessions,” he says.

Indiana has changed some laws to help treatment centers amid the crisis. Before, most patients in recovery for opioid use disorder were required to visit treatment centers daily to receive methadone doses. Now, patients stable in recovery are able to take home up to a month’s worth of medication to reduce the amount of time spent at treatment centers.

The state also loosened telehealth laws so it is easier for organizations like Valley Oaks to bill for intake calls and check-ins by phone. But Schoenradt says it hasn’t been an easy transition. Sometimes a person only wants to talk for five minutes and that can’t be billed. 

“So, we make a five minute call, we put in a non-billable contact with that person and let them know we'll call them again at a certain time,” he says.

Without face-to-face contact, he says the risk of relapse increases. He says even if it is only five minutes on the phone, it’s something. It shows people that the resources are still there.

George says those resources are especially important now. He also says people in recovery have dealt with adversity in the past, and are resilient.

“They've also gotten into recovery, recovery that teaches them to live one day at a time, to stay in the moment, to not project about the unknowns of the future,” George says.

He says the ways the recovery community has adapted in such a short period of time gives him hope — and could improve treatment in the long run.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.