“The pandemic, which has forced prolonged isolation, has dealt a particularly cruel blow to some who are recovering from addiction.”

By M. Christine Macbeth and Megan Eldridge Wroldson

We try to regularly bring the community up-to-date with Brien Center programs, achievements and challenges to help ease the stigma around behavioral health issues, and raise awareness about friends and neighbors who can and do get better. In particular, we often check in during September, which is National Recovery Month.

Living with addiction – and deciding to work toward recovery – is among life’s most difficult challenges. This month, we traditionally celebrate the commitment, resilience and sheer courage of those in the Berkshires who have made this life-changing decision.

But things are a bit different this time around. The pandemic, which has forced prolonged isolation on all of us, has dealt a particularly cruel blow to some of those recovering from addiction. These are the folks who depend the most on the in-person support provided by their clinicians, peers, sponsors and other individuals who are helping to guide their recoveries. The pandemic brought to an abrupt end the face-to-face encouragement that is vital to some people who are recovering from addiction.

First, we’d like to stress that this isn’t the case with everyone. All of the Brien Center programs and services that support patients recovering from addiction were quickly available online following the pandemic shutdown. Telehealth has been a surprisingly successful resource for many of our patients. People want help, and the majority have been willing to meet with us and attend support groups online. In fact, we have a waiting list. Despite a global pandemic, many of our clients have continued to put their recoveries first.

The reason that telehealth works for many recovering from addiction is a credit to a team of recovery coaches, counselors, clinicians, support staff and residential staff that dramatically changed how they delivered care – literally overnight. Our staff’s ability to transform from in-person appointments and meetings to telehealth was amazing to observe.

Yet, telehealth and other forms of virtual treatment have fallen short for other clients recovering from addiction. We aren’t surprised, though we had hoped for a different outcome.

Our long experience tells us that people living with addiction do not recover in isolation. They recover in communities, surrounded by peers who are facing the same daily challenges; by sponsors who bring their own recovery experiences to the effort, and by clinicians who can provide medical assistance that increase the chance for more successful results. Since the pandemic, some of our clients have profoundly missed the in-person group support meetings that often extend to more talking over coffee. They miss the hugs and other nurturing ways that individuals support each other during their recoveries.

Other pandemic consequences for those living with addiction include a reluctance to seek hospital-based programs during this time of Covid-19. Similarly, the numbers of people living in recovery homes is down across the state. Our challenge is to continue finding the most effective ways to provide addiction treatment during a pandemic.

A potential option is encouraging those seeking addiction recovery to find a variety of possible programs and services that, taken together, may work for them. This might include an online 12-step program and virtual meetings with a sponsor, combined with in-person appointments with a physician for medically-assisted treatment or individual counseling. Now might be a very good time to look into a hospital-based or residential addiction recovery program. These options protect against Covid-19 exposure, while also providing a level of personal support and encouragement that these recoveries sometimes require.

In years past, Recovery Month brought people in our community together to celebrate milestones and better lives ahead. Our observance won’t be the same in 2020. Yet, there are still many reasons to be optimistic.

Living all around us are people who are working, parenting and still thriving in their recoveries from addiction. They’re out there, serving as a sign of hope for those who are struggling today.

Christine Macbeth, ACSW, LICSW, is president and CEO of the Brien Center for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Megan Eldridge Wroldson, LICSW, is division director of Adult and Family Services at the Brien Center.