COVID-19 Q&A: Coping with a substance use disorder


My family member has a substance use disorder. How can I best support them during this crisis?

Dr. Kim Corace, Director of Clinical Programming and Research, Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders

It’s normal for people to feel stress and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. For people with substance use disorders, the stress, anxiety, and isolation can worsen their substance use problems. The good news is that there are many strategies that we can help our loved ones put into place to help them cope with the effects of the stress/anxiety and foster their recovery. 

  1. Stay socially connected - It has been said, “The opposite of addiction is connection.” Now, more than ever, help your loved one find ways to stay emotionally and mentally connected (while keeping their physical distance). Encourage virtual (online and telephone) peer supports available through many community organizations. Many of the mutual support groups, like SMART recovery, have gone virtual. Try to help your loved one reach out to friends and family members. They can even use online tools (Zoom, Google hangouts) to set up a video chat for face-to-face connections.
  2. Keep informed - Help your loved one get the facts about COVID-19 from credible sources, like Ottawa Public Health. Try to help them limit the amount of media exposure as this can add to the level of anxiety and stress. Getting updates from a trusted source one or two times a day is likely enough.
  3. Stay active - Try encouraging your loved one to take a walk, get some exercise, or even try an online fitness app. Physical activity can help one cope with their substance use problem, as well as distress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
  4. Try positive activities - Help your loved one engage in activities that they enjoy. Maybe it’s art, music, cooking or learning something new.
  5. Try relaxation or mindfulness - Help your loved one find ways to relax and feel calm. The Royal’s Healthyminds App and others may be of help.
  6. Keep taking medication as prescribed - If your loved one is taking medication for their substance use or mental health problem, it is important for them to keep taking it as prescribed. If there are problems accessing medication related to COVID-19, contact your doctor, nurse practitioner, or pharmacist to help you.
  7. Reduce harm - If you’re loved one is continuing to use substances, encourage them to use safely and reduce their risk. If they are at risk of an opioid overdose, help them get a naloxone kit (available at your local pharmacy). Teach them the signs and symptoms of overdose, and how they can reduce their risk. If they inject drugs, encourage them to use clean needles and other injection equipment. If they are not in self-isolation, encourage them to use at a supervised consumption site.
  8. Seek support - While there are changes to some of the substance use services in our community, many programs are still offering services—but changing the way they are offered (i.e., virtual counselling). If your loved one is looking for services during this time, they can reach out to The Royal’s Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders Program to find out if there is a service at The Royal or in the community that could meet their needs. Also, they can reach out to Service Access to Recovery to find what treatment options may be available. 


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