Mind & Body

Addiction Rates and COVID-19: A Crisis Within a Crisis

Part 2: To deal with addiction effectively, we need to deal with the impacts of trauma
TIMEDecember 16, 2021

In the previous article, which was the first of this three-part series, we explored how rampant substance use disorders are in the United States. As many as 21 million people are currently affected by substance-related addiction, but only 10 percent of those seek treatment.

We also discussed the idea of addiction as a brain disease. A relapsing condition similar to diabetes, which has strong roots in genetics. And while this may be true to an extent, the environment—both at home and in the wider context of society—poses just as much, if not more, of a risk to an individual’s risk of addiction.

We also looked at the strong relationship between addiction, mental health, and neurodiversity. We know that nearly 20 percent of those struggling with mental health have co-occurring substance use disorders, but these statistics only paint a small picture when we consider that the prevalence of co-occurrence is much higher among younger adults, with rates as high as 55 percent in some studies.

As many as 51 million Americans (1 in 5) struggle with mental health disorders, and 41 percent of adults reported feeling anxious during the pandemic. These are alarming statistics of pandemic proportions; we simply can’t ignore them any longer.

In this second episode of the series, we’re going to discuss what needs to be done now to turn the tide on this crisis. As someone who has been working in this field for many years, I can honestly say that the way in which we currently view addiction needs to change, and it needs to change very fast.

Addiction Is More Than Just the Substance

There is a huge misconception around addiction that correlates the severity of an addiction with the potency of a substance. The “war on drugs” initiated during the Reagan and Nixon administrations appears to have done very little to protect American’s from the growing problem of addiction, and while many states are now considering rehabilitation as an alternative to criminal punishment, or even legalizing drugs such as marijuana, neither will be effective at preventing rates of addiction.

Everything we’ve come to learn about addiction points to early trauma or abuse as a huge factor in determining rates of addiction. Therefore, tackling the root causes of addiction early is a far better solution for future generations to come. We will cover this in more detail for part three of this series.

The main point we need to understand here is that addiction has very little to do with the substance, or how potent or “addictive” it is. Addictive behaviors such as gambling, food, or even internet use, can pose many of the same dangers as heroin or crack cocaine use.

That may be hard to believe, but when you understand that male problem gamblers are 19 times more likely to commit suicide compared with their non-addicted peers, and the growing number of studies that link heavy social media use to growing mental health problems, it’s clear that addiction is rampant in all areas of our society, and they all need to be taken seriously.

Addiction Is Addiction

We previously covered the definition of addiction in part one of this series, but just to recap for our new readers, addiction can be defined as:

A compulsive desire to repeat activities or actions despite negative consequences.

If we now take that definition and view it through the lens of addictive behaviors as a whole, and not just substances such as heroin or crack cocaine, addiction rates in the United States are far greater than is actually being reported.

Food addiction is a real problem, thanks in part to unhealthy foods designed to be addictive with combinations of fat, sugar, and salt. The resulting obesity rates in the United States are linked to several diseases, including severe COVID.

Social media addiction is being blamed in part for the rise in depression and anxiety, and depression among younger and younger children. There is also something to be said about sexual promiscuity among young teenagers using TikTok and the risks associated with predators.

Porn addiction is leaving many people profoundly ashamed and is ruining marriages. Porn is also easily accessible to children and creates unrealistic expectations around relationships. 

Work addiction might sound harmless, but it can have disastrous impacts on family life and mental health.

Shopping addiction is a real problem for many people, who seek the short-term dopamine rush of getting a new outfit or tool despite the haunting stress of mounting credit card debt.   

Further studies need to take into account the prevalence of addiction as a whole, and not just those with substance use disorders, but one could fairly assume that addiction rates among Americans are much higher than is being reported.

Addiction in a Post-COVID World

If we take the view that addiction is a manifestation of trauma and emotional pain, a symptom of a deeper issue, and a means of feeling connected with something other than ourselves, we can see that the way in which we view addiction and manage treatment needs to change.

As parents, guardians, or teachers, we have significant influence over what children are exposed to. The impact of generational trauma is very real, and we can unintentionally inflict our own traumas onto them without even knowing it. As adults, we need to take responsibility for our own traumas. We also need to be more mindful and more cautious around the potential risks associated with social media and their algorithms on children.

Instant gratification from social media isn’t the only problem. Fast food and fast fashion have also become the norm. Children and adults alike, more than ever, are chasing a daily dopamine rush in some form or another.

That’s not to say that these things are intrinsically bad; we’ve devoted an entire article to this subject in the hope that many will begin to see addiction as something more than just the substance or behavior itself. In a world where children have to compete with other children in a digital, fabricated social structure, moderation and education have never been so important.

We also need to rethink how we deal with addiction in the workplace, in communities, and in criminal justice systems. The status quo isn’t working, and to continue down the same path expecting different results is nothing short of foolish.

Perhaps the greatest trauma of all during this pandemic is yet to be fully understood. Lockdowns may have curved COVID-19 infection rates, but the amount of uncertainty and division it has created is yet to be fully understood. If health is the primary reason for mandates and lockdowns, then health must be the primary focus as we return to normality. Access to high-quality and affordable counseling services is critical.

In the next and final article of this three-part series, we’re going to delve into addiction preventative measures. We owe it to our children and future generations to take steps to prevent addiction.

Paul Spanjar, CEO of the Providence Projects UK, is a leading addiction specialist. In recovery himself for over 20 years, Spanjar and the team help others transform their lives through the rehabilitation programs offered at the Providence Projects treatment centers.

Paul Spanjar