The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 381,000 Americans, but the isolation and remote work environment caused by the rapidly spreading disease has exacerbated an already terrible opioid epidemic in the country.
In the 12 months prior to May 2020, the U.S. recorded 81,230 drug overdose deaths, an 18.2% increase over the previous 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC announced in December that overdose deaths had already accelerated in the months before the coronavirus came to the U.S., but sped up even more during the pandemic.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” says Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”
One way to do that is to better educate the public about the opioid crisis, the nature of addiction and how employees and their families can seek help during times of crisis. Congress acknowledged the problem in its latest pandemic relief bill, including $4.25 billion for mental health services to address the recent surge in substance abuse, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
Shatterproof, a nonprofit organization founded to help people better understand the nature of addiction, created an educational platform for employers to teach their employees about addiction and the many resources available to them. The goal is to destigmatize addiction so that people who are being negatively affected by it can continue to work and get help for themselves and their families.
“The problem with addiction and COVID is that drugs and alcohol are used to self-medicate people, to temporarily make them feel better when they are not feeling great,” says Stephen D’Antonio, executive vice president of Shatterproof.
Add the fear and anxiety associated with the coronavirus, or the economic hardship associated with losing their job or having their hours cut, and “it’s almost a perfect storm,” he said.
Employers are the first to admit that employee opioid and alcohol addiction costs them a lot of money every year in the form of healthcare treatments and missed work. But, before COVID-19, employees didn’t have a lot of free time to do drugs or drink while at work. With remote work, they are even more isolated from society and nobody is around to see them drinking or taking drugs.
“Employers, as the decision makers of health plan design, have the unique ability to educate and build support systems for employees, particularly those at-risk,” said Cigna’s Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health. “This not only improves the health of employees, it improves the culture and overall wellbeing at the organization.”
This article originally appeared in Benefit News, read more here.