By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of What’s the Big Deal About Addictions?
The effects of the pandemic have been steadily increasing since the start in March 2020. Most schools have resorted to online learning. Students and teachers alike find that distance learning is very stressful and often less effective. The loss of jobs, particularly in the service industries, has been catastrophic for many families. People of color have been particularly hard hit. It is understandable that many of us are experiencing pandemic fatigue and, despite the warnings of public health officials, more people are breaking out of their restricted social groups and are travelling, eating in restaurants, and playing sports. Sadly, this appears to have resulted in a third wave of cases. As of December 8, 14.8 million people have tested positive for COVID-19. More than 300,000 Americans have died, and over 100,000 Americans are hospitalized. Of further concern is that people who have recovered from COVID-19 are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems.
As a result of this stress, a disturbing increase in mental health disorders, including addictions, has been reported. Rates of suicide have also increased. The social isolation is hard on most teens, but anxious or depressed teens may suffer even more. If you know of anyone who might be thinking about suicide, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a good resource to share. The phone number to call is 1-800-273-8255. They can also be found online.
Fortunately, there are many ways that parents can help their teens and other family members with addiction problems during the pandemic.
Addictive Disorders and COVID-19
Research tells us that prior to the pandemic, drug and alcohol use were fairly common. By 12th grade, almost 60 percent of teens have tried alcohol. About 36 percent of teens have tried marijuana, 24 percent have tried smoking cigarettes, and about 50 percent of teens have used electronic cigarettes (vaping). According to the CDC, substance abuse has increased among all age groups since the start of the pandemic. The number of people testing positive for fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine has increased.
People with substance use disorders who develop COVID-19 are much more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, those who smoke or vape (as many teens do) are at higher risk of contracting the disease and experiencing more significant health effects when they do. One major downside to tighter prescription monitoring of painkillers such as OxyContin has been an increase in people resorting to more dangerous opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, since these drugs can be easier to obtain in some communities than legal medications are. The risk of overdose is high when using street drugs because people don’t know how much of a drug they are getting.
The Effects of the Pandemic on Teen Mental Health
Kids who are unable to play with friends and teens who are unable to hang out together are finding the isolation harder and harder to handle. The loss of milestones, such as attending dances and proms and having in-person graduations, is tough for many teens. Most kids and teens do not find learning easy with an online format, which means that school is now a greater source of stress than it was when attending classes in person. When families have been hit financially through layoffs or job losses, kids also feel the stress of not knowing if their family will be able to keep their apartment or house. Such stresses can overwhelm one’s ability to cope.
Addictive behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use, as well as behavioral addictions such as internet gaming, compulsively checking social media, and watching porn are more likely to occur when someone does not have good coping strategies for handling stress, anxiety, and depression. Addictive behaviors are a quick fix but do not allow teens to develop healthier coping strategies, such as mindfulness, deep breathing, journaling, and talking with peers about their problems.
This is why one of the best strategies for overcoming addictions (or preventing them in the first place) is learning healthier ways of handling emotions and finding alternative activities that are enjoyable, such as hobbies or sports.
For most teens, their social life is one the most important aspects of their lives. Spending time with friends, dealing with conflict, exploring dating, and sharing secrets are critical for healthy development. For many teens, the best part about school is socializing. For some, it is the only thing they like about it. The loss of sports, drama club, and other school activities has taken its toll as well. Getting regular exercise, which for some occurred only during physical education classes, helps reduce stress. For most, it’s much more fun to do that with friends than by yourself.
Getting Help with Addictions
About 22 million people are in recovery from an addictive disorder. The good news is that telehealth services have increased substantially since the start of the pandemic. This may allow some people to obtain help who were earlier not able to do so. A wider array of therapists who can treat addiction may be available to support you and your family. Ask your family doctor or your teen’s school counselor for recommendations on counseling. Your insurance company may also have a list of providers who provide this service. While some therapists are only conducting sessions online, others are meeting with patients in their offices. If you do schedule an in-person appointment, be sure to ask about what the counselor’s protocol is for keeping everyone safe. Some teens like the idea of doing therapy sessions from the comfort and privacy of their bedrooms.
Many teens and adults with addictive disorders find that self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous are very helpful in staying sober and avoiding relapse. Since the start of the pandemic, many of these groups no longer meet or only meet online, though some have transitioned to meeting outdoors. While online meetings may provide some help, they aren’t the same since the camaraderie and socializing that accompanies such meetings can’t be replicated in the digital space. Many people are tired of Zoom meetings. One advantage of online meetings, however, is that you can join meetings with people in different parts of the country (or even the world). You don’t have to worry that you’ll run into someone you know at a meeting. And for those who don’t have transportation to attend meetings, having more online options means that more people are able to access them.
Other Sources of Support
Some agencies have been reaching out to teens to provide support. Two organizations, Heart Smiles and Harlem Lacrosse, both in-person mentoring programs, are now doing their mentoring online. Programs like these allow teens to maintain connections during the pandemic.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine website has resources to help people access online support groups.
The Centers for Disease Control website has a page to assist parents in helping their kids and teens cope with pandemic stress.
Teens can access the 5th Dimension Young People’s Group (aka 5D), which meets every day on Zoom at 9:30 p.m. Eastern time. You can contact them by emailing 5D.email@example.com or by texting 5d to 313131 from any US phone number and you will receive information on how to join via Zoom or call in.
How Parents Can Help Teens Struggling with Addictions
Parents can help teens by encouraging social contact. You have to weigh the pros and cons of allowing your teens to socialize with others. Teens are notorious for thinking that bad things will never happen to them, which understandably worries parents. Opportunities to gather socially distanced outside can help. Some teens have become creative, finding ways to get together outdoors with power outlets so they can bring their gaming devices. Of course, not all teens have access to such amenities.
Encourage your children to stay active. Family walks and bike rides are great ways to stay in shape and reduce stress. Ask teens to help you cook dinner. Get out some of the board games you may not have played in years. These can be good bonding experiences, even if your teen balks at first.
What about screen time? Many parents limit screen time for kids and teens. It is true that excessive screen time is not healthy for kids, especially young kids. However, for many kids it’s now their only way to socialize. It’s okay to relax your screen time rules during the pandemic. Rather than setting strict limits and punishing kids when the limits are not followed, it is much more helpful and effective to have a conversation with your kids (teens especially) and work together to find a good balance. As long as your kids are doing their best in school (as much as they can given the online format), helping around the house with chores, getting some exercise, and spending time with family, giving them extra screen time shouldn’t be a problem. However, if your child has trouble getting off screens when their time is up or is neglecting responsibilities as a result of excessive screen time, imposing stricter limits is in order.
Finally, be sure to keep lines of communication open. Ask how your kids are coping, how they feel about online school, if they have worries about the coronavirus, and if there is anything you can do to help. Sometimes letting your kids vent and being able to empathize with them can relieve some of the pressure. Don’t be afraid to ask your kids if they are using drugs, alcohol, vaping, or other activities to help themselves feel better. Teens don’t always feel comfortable talking with parents, but often, if you take the time to listen without judging them or telling them what to do or feel, they will open up. Let them know that they are not alone, that you’re in this together, and that you’ll do whatever you can to help them feel better and get through the pandemic.
Dr. James J. Crist is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center (CFCC) in Woodbridge, Virginia, and a substance abuse counselor, working with addictive disorders in teens and adults. At CFCC, he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults, specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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