Escapism and addiction: Trending during COVID-19

I’ll cut straight to the chase: we have a serious problem with self-medication and numbing going on right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Between marijuana sales booming, opioid overdoses sharply spikingalcohol sales up nationally, porn traffic showing very significant increases, and even online gambling showing a huge increase (including a staggering 90% in Nevada), self-medication through addictive behaviors are at an all-time high right now. 

Some of our most clear and urgent data comes from opioids, are what we’re seeing right now is incredibly serious and shocking.  The Washington Post detailed how overdoses aren’t just increasing, the increase is multiplying as COVID-19 has gone on – 18% increase in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May.  In Chicago, we’ve seen a 50% increase in overdose deaths from this time last year.  Potentially driving this, a revealing data analysis by Millennium Health found that of patients currently in treatment for addiction recovery, screens were positive for fentanyl 32% more after COVID-19 emerged in mid-March, compared to the beginning portion of 2020. 

Alcohol use increase are equally as alarming, with sales rates commonly approaching or eclipsing a 67% threshold.  What makes matters even worse, however, is that data shows it’s just not just more people buying alcohol, it’s people individually buying in much greater sizes and quantities.  Data shows that sales of 1.75L hard liquor (half-gallon jugs) are up 23x (not a typo), boxed wine up 10x, and 30-packs of beer up 21%.  This leads to more binges, and has an easier pathway to faster development of a physiological dependency, or addiction.

So, what can we do to help address this trend?  First – make sure you’re being honest with yourself about your own use of these products, and don’t be afraid to help a family member recognize theirs, if you’re concerned. 

Second, work to focus on healthy coping choices for yourself and others in your life.  Meditation, exercise, video chatting with friends – whatever works for you, make sure to do it.  And by that I mean actually do it, don’t just think about that you probably should do it, but then eat chocolate chips late at night instead (not that I have any experience with this).

And lastly, make sure to get up-to-date on where you or loved ones can go to get connected for professional help.  Working with a therapist puts someone in your corner who will use evidence-based treatments to help get you on track, and will advocate for you and help guide you to other resources if a higher level of care is needed.  Right now just about every therapist has telemedicine options, so it’s easier than ever to fit a session into a busy schedule. 

When looking for a therapist, I recommend first looking to see if there is a board-certified psychologist (ABPP) in your area.  Even if they’re not open for new clients, I’d value their recommendation for other referrals.  If not, therapyden.com and psychologytoday.com are great therapist listing sites.  And, of course, you’re welcome to reach out to me if you live in Illinois and need a recommendation.

Early intervention means much, much less work on the back-end to fix a problem, if frequent self-medication turns into addiction.  Keep your eyes open, both inwardly and outwardly, and let’s make sure to keep everyone as healthy as we can.

Aaron Weiner, PhD, ABPP, is a licensed, board-certified psychologist and master addiction counselor.

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