ALBANY — Disruptive events such as a natural disaster or loss of a job can affect individuals, as well as their families, even when the circumstances are short in duration.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has disrupted the lives of nearly everyone in myriad ways — from being shut off from loved ones to long periods spent in isolation — and has lasted for a year the impact has been massive.

For many, the stress and depression brought about by this unprecedented event has led to them turning to the use of substances, from the legal such as alcohol to street drugs such as methamphetamine and in particular opioids.

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During the period of May 2019 to May 2020 the number of opioid overdose deaths were the greatest in the nation for any 12-month period, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in December. While the number of deaths was climbing prior to the emergence of COVID-19, it seems to have accelerated during the pandemic.

In June 2020, a survey revealed that 13.3 percent of U.S. adults had either started or increased use of substances to deal with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.

That trend has been seen locally as well, said Sandra Dailey, coordinator of the Medically Assisted Treatment/Recovery is Everything (MATT/RISE) program.

MATT/RISE operates under Aspire Behavioral Health & Developmental Disability Services in Albany.

“As far as the RISE program is concerned and what I’ve seen and heard talking with other agencies, the answer is yes,” Dailey said of increased substance use. “I was talking with a state health official; she said there has been a tremendous increase in drug overdoses in the state as well.”

In 2020, Dougherty County Emergency Medical Services responded to 263 suspected opioid overdose cases, several of which were fatal.

The service has noticed a sharp increase in overdose cases, many involving fentanyl, EMS Director Sam Harrell said. During one 12-hour shift in December paramedics responded to four overdose calls, more cases than the service once handled over an entire month.

Through a grant last year from the Morehouse School of Medicine, secured through the Phoebe Putney Health System’s Network of Trust, Dougherty EMS was able to purchase naloxone — also known by the brand Narcan — to help revive patients who have overdosed on an opioid.

Paramedics carry the nasal spray in their bags and can administer it much more quickly than when they had to return to the ambulance to get intravenous doses for patients.

In those situations time is critical for patients, Allen said.

“They literally stop breathing,” he said. “In four to six minutes you start losing brain cells if you’re not breathing. In four to six minutes you’re dying.”

The pandemic’s role in turning individuals to seek relief in substance use is obvious, Dailey said.

“In talking with individuals we serve it affected them emotionally,” she said. “I’ve seen an increase in anxiety and depression as a result of the pandemic. Due to the stresses that come with COVID I’m seeing more anxiety, generalized anxiety and depression.”

In addition to opioids, people have been turning to methamphetamine, cocaine and the old standby — alcohol. And many have problems with two or more substances.

MATT/RISE has remained open nearly throughout the entire pandemic.

It provides help through early intervention for high-risk individuals. It also offers educational prevention

“The RISE program includes a collaborative care model that relies on a team consisting of licensed mental health professionals, certified addiction recovery entities and specialists and medical providers,” Dailey said. “We’re here and we’re here to help.”

Assisting those who are entering long-term recovery is another ASPIRE program, the Change Center.

The peer-led addiction recovery support center staffed by others who are in recovery provides a variety of activities in a non-clinical setting designed for individuals and their families working through recovery. The center, which celebrated its two-year anniversary on Feb. 12, offers individualized paths that include everything from regular meetings and bonding to yoga.

“Our programs complement one another,” said Katyryn Newcomb, program director at the Change Center. “Our main goal (here) is to help people after that first year. It’s based on peer support and implementing the tools that are taught in other programs. We’re really treating the whole person.”

During 2020, the center provided nearly 20,000 support services.

“(That’s) anything from support of employment to transportation to appointments and screenings, natural support, check-in and educational support,” Newcomb said.

She also has seen the effects of the pandemic over the past year. Alcohol deaths are even greater than deaths from opioid overdoses over the past year, and cocaine use increased by 26 percent across the country.

“The isolation has caused people to either start this process or continue the unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Newcomb said. “I think people who were healthy, who didn’t have any mental health problems before COVID, are having difficulties now. If you look at people who had problems before, that has been exacerbated.”

Heading into its third year, the Change Center will continue its work to provide activities focused on the whole person, she said.

“Hope happens and recovery happens,” Newcomb said. “We reduce the stigma and (establish) a mindset that this is possible.

Residents can contact MATT/RISE by calling (229) 854-4333 or Dailey at sdwhite@albanycsb.org. The Change Center can be reached at (229) 299-9678 and also has a Facebook page.

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