Substance and alcohol use disorders remain highly stigmatized conditions in society. As with other stigmatized illnesses, addiction stigma has the power to kill. COVID-19 and addiction share a commonality of fear and seclusion and to a certain extent, stigma. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the combination of stigma and isolation has elucidated the issue of freely accessing recovery without such treatment being stigmatized

In times of worldwide peril, it is human nature to find methods of stress relief. For many, this results in the use of substances legal and illegal alike. For those with addiction, this may have fatal outcomes. Even before the pandemic, San Antonio had already been cited as having higher than average incidents of alcohol and substance use. The mortality rate for opioid overdose death in San Antonio is higher than the national average. Similarly, in a 2004 study, San Antonio had the highest rate of binge drinking prevalence per capita throughout the entire nation. 

While research on the COVID-19 pandemic experience and its effects on substance and alcohol use disorder are preliminary, initial results are staggering. According to the CDC and the Drug Alcohol Review journal, overdose rates and alcohol-attributable deaths increased in 2020, with over 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in May 2020, “the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.” Further, the CDC has found a historic spike of drug overdose deaths during COVID-19 for Latinx people.

Researchers indicate that alcohol-related deaths may be correlated to the increased availability of alcohol. Many states loosened restrictions during the pandemic, allowing the sale of alcohol to-go as many restaurants and grocery stores pivoted to curbside and delivery. Governor Greg Abbott recently signed a bill to permanently allow “alcohol to-go” in Texas. The move was widely seen as an effort to help businesses, but it could have inadvertent effects.

The recent Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act allocated funding for mental and behavioral health care, including substance use. While this legislation signals movement to improve access to recovery services, stigma remains largely unaddressed. Stigma is continuously cited as being one of the top barriers for people seeking recovery services. It prevents those in active addiction from telling those they are close with that they are struggling, and others in more severe situations from seeking medical attention.

Addiction is not simply an individual problem; it is a societal problem and should be treated as such. To address this societal problem, it would be crucial for local and federal governments to implement campaigns addressing and discussing stigma and providing education on the science of addiction. Stigma should be addressed from multiple perspectives both locally and nationwide. Our community needs partnerships between local leadership, medical professionals, and nonprofits focused on recovery for those with substance use disorders to directly address the issue of stigma.

Creating a targeted insight-driven marketing campaign through social media channels would be useful for millennials and Gen-Z. For older generations, the message might be transmitted by various media outlets who are willing to feature human interest stories on persons with addiction to humanize the illness. Additionally, these campaigns should be interwoven with scientific education on the nature of addiction would be useful to further understand and destigmatize this illness.

It is also worth noting that this issue intersects directly with race and ethnicity. According to SAHMSA, for the Latinx population, nearly 90% of Latinx people with a substance use disorder did not receive treatment. While this may be for a variety of reasons, stigma within the Latinx community is an identifiable barrier. That’s why it’s crucial to have culturally competent campaigns focusing on education and publicized through various forms of media to normalize talking about the issue.

People with substance use disorders are human beings who deserve access to compassionate care. As a society, we are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable among us. We must do better to improve access to recovery for those dealing with addiction and destigmatize the illness to encourage more people to seek recovery. In addition to increasing access to services, it is essential that we finally begin having conversations on the origins and scientific basis of this illness to defeat stigma once and for all.

Ashleigh Cantu

Ashleigh Flores Cantu is a writer and graduate student at Our Lady of the Lake University. Ashleigh is passionate about the substance use population and plans to continue advocating and working with the...