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For many of us, the pandemic both created new stressors and magnified existing ones. This is particularly true for substance abuse. Studies show that there has been an alarming increase in the rates of alcohol, illicit drug, and prescription medication dependence over the past two and a half years.

As life returns to an adjusted normal, many individuals are struggling to circle back to healthy routines. A new short-term Substance Abuse Program at Summit Health offers individualized care for a broad spectrum of patients coping with various degrees of addiction. Nearly 21 million Americans are thought to have a substance use disorder, but only about 10% of them receive treatment. 

“The pandemic had a profound impact on substance use in several ways. There are individuals who started using during this time of extreme stress and spiraled out of control, people who were already using and became worse, and those who had a history of substance abuse and relapsed,” explains James Korman, PsyD, ACT, chief of behavioral health and wellness at Summit Health. “When people are isolated, there is little socialization and outside accountability, so they can rationalize continued heavy use easily. Now that we are returning to our normal lives, people are struggling to either stop using alcohol and substances or reduce the amount.”

“If you, a family member, or a friend is concerned that you may have a problem, please call us or your primary care physician. Any provider who you feel comfortable reaching out to can help guide you to the right place,” says John Guldner, MA, LPC, LCADC, behavioral health clinician and addiction specialist at Summit Health. “Not everyone who contacts us needs treatment or is ready to explore treatment. We are here to listen and help you figure out what steps you can take to achieve better health and wellness.”

“One of the most important aspects of helping patients who struggle with substance use is helping them understand that there is nothing to be ashamed of and providing a supportive non-judgmental environment,” adds Heather Provence, PMHNP-BC, psychiatric nurse practitioner and addiction specialist at Summit Health. 

Red flags for substance use disorder 

The signs are not always obvious. Individuals struggling with substance use may appear to be high functioning but find themselves having difficulty controlling their alcohol or substance use. They may also find that they can’t socialize without using or may start using more when alone. This coupled with feelings of anxiety and depression, may indicate there is a problem. Here are some questions to ask yourself or others that could be warning signs:  

  • Are your relationships with friends and family being impacted? Is your substance use affecting your ability to work or perform activities of daily living?
  • When you drink, do you have as much as planned? Do you often exceed the amount you wanted to have?
  • How guilty do you feel about your use? Do you wake up in the morning and say, “I don’t want to do this again,” but then use again in the afternoon or evening?
  • Are other people concerned that you have a problem?
  • Have you been arrested for DUI or disorderly conduct?

People often turn to substances like alcohol or drugs to help themselves cope with feelings of depression or anxiety. This is known as “self-medicating,” explains Dr. Korman. Having a few glasses of wine or taking some pills may help you feel better that evening, but over time it will make your feelings of sadness and distress worse. “These individuals are getting short-term relief, but they are doing long-term damage,” he adds. 

Treatment options for substance use disorder 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. A common misconception is that substance rehabilitation programs only focus on abstinence or refraining from alcohol and drugs entirely. While abstinence is the goal, Summit Health clinicians also work with individuals to moderate their use. 

“The providers and clinicians at Summit Health understand the importance of meeting patients where they are in their recovery process,” says Ms. Provence. 

When people aren’t ready to commit to abstinence, they can start with a moderation program. If someone has had points in their life where they were able to use their substances responsibly, they may be averse to programs that require them to stop entirely. Moderation programs can also shed light on whether the person can use in a reduced capacity. 

“At the end of the day, the goal is harm reduction — trying to reduce the negative impact of the substance on people’s mental well-being, physical health, personal relationships, and professional life,” explains Dr. Korman. 

Summit Health’s Short-Term Substance Abuse Program offers: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of counseling that focuses on reducing cravings by changing negative thoughts and behaviors. “Identifying and avoiding the triggers, behaviors, and situations that result in substance use is key,” says Mr. Guldner.
  • Medically-assisted treatments — medications have been found to be effective in decreasing cravings and treating opioid and alcohol use disorders in an outpatient office setting. “This results in increased success in their sobriety and an improved quality of life,” says Ms. Provence.
  • Ambulatory detox — outpatient treatment that meets several times a week for people going through intense physical withdrawal. “People who are resistant to inpatient detox are generally relieved to know this is an option. Ambulatory detox is opening a lot of doors and willingness for treatment,” explains Mr. Guldner. 

Setting patients up for long-term success

Clinicians in the program work closely with primary care physicians to provide a continuum of care. Individuals who graduate from the program are connected to outside community support groups. 

“Progress is not always a straight line, and relapse is often a part of substance use,” says Dr. Korman. “Our goal is to give these patients the skills they need to manage their condition long-term. It is important for them to know that we are here for them without judgment.”

Anyone with concerns, even if they seem mild, is encouraged to reach out for a screening. Summit Health’s Substance Abuse Program offers a variety of services and options for patients, depending on their needs. To learn more or ask for an assessment, call 908-277-8900. Your information will be kept entirely confidential.