Mental health: How the pandemic has taken a toll on those struggling with substance abuse

Mental Health

Lansing, Mich. (WLNS) — Loneliness. It’s a feeling that the pandemic has left many of us to feel at times.

But for those already struggling with mental health and substance use disorders, this time alone has really tested their recovery.

One Mid-Michigan man is helping others through this difficult time.

Since the pandemic hit, Joshua Corts has seen loss.

“Recovering from substance abuse: I’ve lost a lot of really close friends. People that I’ve helped in some way or that introduced… We’ve lost a lot of people. It’s been challenging… the numbers show that… overdoses,” Joshua said.

A situation he was once in himself. 
“I have been to treatment, jail, mental hospitals, and that kind of thing.. I have been 17 times total,” he said.

Joshua was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. But how did he get there?
“I grew up in Jackson… Jackson, Michigan, South Side,” he said.

Joshua said he had a lot of challenges growing up.
“Got involved with the wrong crowd and started experimenting with marijuana, alcohol, things like that… then that led to more illicit drugs.”

Which brought him down a dark park.
“Getting involved in crimes… petty crimes. Drinking and driving things like that…he said.”

But it did not stop there.
“Which then ultimately led to IV heroin use… so I was addicted to IV heroin for… for a number of years,” Joshua said.

Until eventually he faced his fears and got into recovery.

“You know, I had a lot of demons. A lot of things in there. A lot of PTSD from childhood trauma,” Joshua said.

But his first time in recovery would not be his last.
“I didn’t really wanna face it and that’s why I kept going in and out. After a culmination of all the things coming together, I was able to get enough.. enough of the recovery piece where it actually stuck and I found a group of people to help me .”

It has now been six years since Joshua was in treatment.

But it’s something he works on everyday.
“I’m always gonna be in recovery. So it’s something that I have accepted that I’m gonna have to continue the same stuff I was doing that got me to where I’m at,” Joshua said.

And now Joshua is helping others, as a peer recovery coach at community mental health authority.

He takes his experience with recovery and helps others create their own recovery plan. 
“I go in and I let them know, like hey… well this is my story. They’re like, ‘okay.’ ‘That trust.’ Yeah it’s automatic.”

It’s a position, that at one point, he could only dream of getting.
“I just really wanna do that. So it’s something that I aspired to do. It was one of the first things I’ve ever completed in my life,” he said.

But he never thought he would be helping people with substance use disorders in the middle of a pandemic.              
“It’s a lot..And sometimes even now, sometimes it’s overwhelming,” he said.

It’s overwhelming due to the fact that the pandemic makes it harder for him as a peer recovery coach to help others with their recovery. 

“We’re just not able to help the same amount of people,” he said.

And harder for him as someone in recovery.          
“I haven’t had the same ability to recover. If it was not for people that help me when I don’t wanna help myself I would have already. I would have already fell victim to my own thinking.”

He said this time is especially difficult for people with substance use disorders, because of isolation.
“We as addicts in recovery… addicts, alcoholics, whatever… in recovery we need connection.”

Another challenge is limited bed capacity at recovery centers.

He said he is being turned away when you need help the most.
“Okay, we’re just gonna do what we always do then. You know, if I call and I ask somebody for help and they don’t help me. Okay, fine… I knew no one was gonna help me anyway. That’s kind of the internal talk that I have.”

He thinks isolation and limited capacity led to people using more drugs and alcohol during the pandemic and others agree.


Ericanne Spence is the Director of Integrated Treatment and Recovery Services at the Community Mental Health Authority. She said alcohol sales show that people are relapsing.

“Alcohol sales are up in the general population… within my population of individuals that have substance use disorder issues, it skyrocketed. And led to a lot of relapse, a lot of increased use, and increased overdose with other substances. This year back up into the 50s again with overdose deaths and overdose rates… people going into the hospital with overdoses. So I know it is… we’re back to square one.”

Ericanne Spence

She said during the pandemic, there has been an increased use of substances and alcohol and higher relapse rates.

“There are more people using stimulants like methamphetamine, which it’s not just dying from opioids. You’re also dying from a combination of substances… benzodiazepine use which is an anti-anxiety medication,” Spence said.

Ingham County Health officer Linda Vail said some people use these substances as a coping mechanism.
“People with substance use disorders have certain triggers. So I think we’re living through a time that has probably got lots of triggers,” Vail said.

And on top of that, Vail said people cannot access the full range of health services.
“We had to alter the way we deliver a lot of care. You know, A lot of telehealth visits.. a lot of Zoom meetings,” Vail said.

Spence said those zoom sessions don’t always show her the big picture with how people are doing.
“How are [they] dressed? You know, how are you taking care of yourself you know with your hygiene?”

But despite these setbacks, Spence and her team still find ways to help. 
“To have somebody laugh.. eat well.. sleep well.. and address their substance use is why we all keep doing this even during a pandemic,” Spence said.

And for Joshua, while this pandemic has tested him, he says he is still grateful for where he is at today.
“I didn’t think that I was gonna make it very long. Like I didn’t know that I could have a life like I live today.”

Joshua said he cannot change what’s going on with this pandemic.
“This is what’s really going on out there. I don’t want to sugarcoat it for you guys.”

But he said he can at least help people get through it. 
“Even though the pandemic socially distanced us… It also brought us together.”

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