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Pandemic placing added stress on recovery community, leading to more relapses

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IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Overdose deaths increased nationwide in 2019, taking over 70,000 lives. Idaho is not immune to the struggles of opioid and substance misuse - our state has experienced an increasing number of drug overdose deaths over the last two decades.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2019, we lost 264 Idahoans to drug overdose related deaths.

Unfortunately, the unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19 are exacerbating the opioid epidemic across the country. The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program has noted a 20 percent increase in suspected overdose submissions from participating agencies in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same time last year.

Idaho is seeing an increase in the number of suicides and people falling into relapse.

Soldiers of Hope is an overdose awareness group in Idaho Falls that aims to educate the community and save people from potential overdoses. Founder Kathy Allen says the recovery community has seen an increase in overdoses and relapses since the pandemic hit.

“With the pandemic, people have not been able to go to their regular meetings or counseling, they’re not being held accountable by drug court and wood court and so people are just too fresh in their recovery, and maybe not strong enough in facing this pandemic that they are relapsing,” Chin said.

Shayla Ward, executive director of Brickhouse Recovery says the increase in relapses may be due to people who were going strong in their recovery feeling isolated now due to the pandemic. She says some recovering addicts may have lost their jobs and now have time that isn’t being filled, coupled with feelings of shame and depression due to their current joblessness that is leading to relapse. 

“A lot of people are in crisis,” Ward said. “As far as, I don’t have anywhere to live, I don’t have any way to pay my bills, and I’m using drugs and alcohol on top of all of that, so it’s just compounded issues.”

Ward says Brickhouse Recovery is also seeing an increase in people who are seeking help for their relapses and are interested in treatment.

“There are different times where there’s more abuse to methamphetamines or to alcohol, but right now we are seeing an increase in the number of people seeking treatment who are addicted to opiates,” Ward said. “Heroin is massive in our community right now. A lot of people are using heroin because they get addicted to some sort of a pain medication and then heroin actually becomes cheaper. And so there is a massive amount of people using heroin in our community and heroin being trafficked in and out of our community.”

Ward says at least 30 to 40 percent of clients report they have overdosed at some point.

“A lot of people find themselves in places that they never thought they’d be in,” Ward said.

The Behavioral Health Crisis Center of East Idaho provides stabilization, support, and a safe environment to detox. They offer community resources to aid people struggling with mental health or addiction.

Clinical Director, Elizabeth Yanez says they are seeing 10 to 12 people on average per day who are struggling with suicidal ideation and/or addiction. 

“Hopefully the community can hear that there is such a need for mental health services in the community, because COVID is really taking effect, what’s going on here in the community,” Yanez said. “Even if it’s still a very silent killer, the suicide rates, the increased additction and overdose. It’s there...Now when you’re six months in[to the pandemic], and there doesn’t seem to be really an end in sight for some individuals, losing hope, job loss, family strain; you have all of these factors, added to what they were already dealing with with their recovery,” Yanez said.

Yanez says some people feel so ashamed to admit they are struggling with heroin addiction, they initially say they are suffering from addiction to alcohol or methamphetamines. She says withdrawing from drugs can oftentimes cause suicidal ideation.

“What we’re seeing now is, because of the increased coming in from alcohol and drug use, they’re also self-reporting a history of recent overdoses,” Yanez said. “We’re just so happy that they’re being honest with us about their addiction and that they’re trusting us enough to share the guilt and shame of the overdose...that’s a very vulnerable thing to talk about and I think we’re experiencing that on a daily basis and it just keeps on coming.”

Yanez mentions she recently saw a man who overdosed for his second time in three months. He says if it hadn’t been for a family friend administering Narcan, he would not be alive today. He came to the Crisis Center terrified that he would soon die from his addiction.

“That’s the story of one of hundreds of people we see come in every month coming in with overdose reports,” Yanez said, “We see people every single day who talk about how they can’t stop using and they haven’t been to an AA meeting in months, they haven’t been to an NA meeting. And that’s the heartbreaking stuff.”

Yanez says in the last three to four weeks, they have seen an increase in people who come to the Crisis Center reporting that they are highly suicidal. 

“We’re trying to offer hope one person at a time here at the Crisis Center and we’re offering resources in the community like Soldiers of Hope, and the Center for Hope, places that people can come and have a human connection with what it’s really like to struggle with addiction and what it’s really like to struggle with depression,” Yanez said.

Soldiers of Hope co-founder, Allen Abood, advises to never use alone, have Narcan on hand, and be aware that drugs laced with Fentanyl are in our community. Fentanyl is extremely potent and can easily cause a fatal overdose.

“We’re gonna lose a lot of lives, but if we do those three steps, there’s a great chance that we can get those kids back into recovery to be active members of society again and start loving life and stop hating it,” Abood said.

Abood feels as though Soldiers of Hope can’t help as much as they would like to, or used to, due to the pandemic. “It’s just stuck our boots in the mud. We can’t do anything to really get out there and help these kids and get them the help that they need. And it’s just frustrating. It’s heartbreaking to say the least.” Abood said.

Many recovery meetings have moved online due to the pandemic, but many people in the recovery community and providers say this is not the same as face-to-face contact with support systems. Some recovery meetings are starting to meet in person again.

The Crisis Center, Center for Hope, and Soldiers of Hope are available resources to get immediate, safe, and judgement-free help for addiction. All three have Narcan available for the public. 

“If you know someone who has a history of addiction to heroin, have a Narcan in your car,” Yanez said. “Have a Narcan in your bedroom dresser or your medicine cabinet because you never know when that individual is gonna overdose and that Narcan can save a life.”

Yanez says she is seeing an increase in people who self-report self-harm. She says they come to the Crisis Center having already caused harm to their bodies.

Yanez says one woman came in a few days ago who had stabbed herself in the neck, only looking for resources, and didn’t initially bring up her self-inflicted wound until staff noticed it for themselves.

“We’ve never seen that lethality in the time that I’ve been here at the Crisis Center so dramatic,” Yanez said. “People are walking in with the actual wounds.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, depression, abuse or grief, you can call or text the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at (208) 398 HELP[4357].

Idaho / Idaho Falls / News / Top Stories
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Chelsea Briar

Chelsea is a reporter and producer for Local News 8 and KIDK Eyewitness News 3.

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