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The Unintended Consequences of the COVID-19 Shutdown — Increased Addiction (Opinion)

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Like so many things that happen throughout the fabric of American culture and politics, the government’s solutions to many of society’s troubles become a greater scourge than the original problem. We see this today with the increased rate of addiction and suicide in homes throughout America; a situation believed to be driven in large part by the isolation, intense boredom, and anxiety fueled by the virus scare and the subsequent shutdown.

Verifiable numbers of infection (and death) from the COVID 19 virus aren’t in yet, so we can’t be sure whether the shutdown was even justified in the first place. Is the death rate greater than the annual flu averages? We can’t really know because so much of the information concerning the virus and its rates of infection and death are now tied to funding streams from the federal and state governments that provide hospitals and municipalities a motive to inflate their numbers.

This kind of political weaponizing of a threat is disconcerting at best, and is always a producer of unintended negative consequences. While the details of the political angle of the shutdown is beyond the scope of this article, I mention it here to give context to how seemingly unrelated problems – like increased addiction rates/overdoses and a government driven private shutdown can form a relationship downstream that is far from helpful, and in the case of increased addiction, is downright tragic. The question is why are we seeing such high rates of use today? It’s easy to say, “It’s COVID! It’s isolation! It’s the anxiety!” and I would agree, but only in part.

The Benefits of Political Pressure

The pressure inflicted on the masses during the shutdown has been nearly universally seen as a negative experience (with the exception of believing there may have been a “flattening of the infection curve”). But as a man on the street (and as a researcher by profession) I’ve observed something different happening around the country. People are doing many things they ordinarily would never have done had the shutdown not occurred, and not all of them are negative. I watched a friend of mine buy a boat and spend days on the water fishing with his two sons and wife – something they would never have done had the shutdown not occurred. People are rebuilding their homes because without working, they have time to do so. Others, like me, have spent quality time with their wife and kids as well – really looked them in the eyes and communicated on a deeper more heartfelt level. I’ve been seeing more people hiking, running, walking and cleaning their yards and living the outdoor lifestyle than ever before. It’s all healthy stuff! And all of this, I’ve been watching in my home state of New York – the perceived ground zero of the COVID scare. So while the shutdown has driven unexpected changes as well as these kinds of ancillary benefits, the question becomes, why wouldn’t those benefits also be seen in the addicted population? Why wouldn’t the addicted see their plight differently and why wouldn’t the shutdown be a driver of positive change like many of those mentioned above?

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Beliefs Matter!

In our culture, addiction is seen as a lifelong malady with no permanent solution. There is no silver lining in a belief like that; it sets up an almost certain failure based on its message of hopelessness. As the treatment advocates say, “You might get a daily reprieve from your disease of addiction if you treat it and engage in daily recovery activities to distract yourself from your habit. But nonetheless it will always be there, lurking – a disease bent on your destruction.” This is a myth based on a 70 year old theory, but because our culture has doubled down on this mythology with an almost rabid religiosity, people with addictions have become a hopeless lot. Now, add in the isolation, anxiety, and a general sense that your freedoms are now gone, and fuel is added to the already existing flames that consume “the sufferer”.

What you have here are two beliefs that when placed on top of one another, extinguishes people’s drive to find that silver lining in a stressful situation. “Why bother,” the substance user thinks to himself.

Think about it – if you have a “progressive disease” that is believed to be amplified by anxiety, isolation, and boredom (all ideas promoted in our treatment and recovery-centered culture), there is little room to see a path out of their habit. People who identify as “addicts” will simply grab hold of the “devil they know.” Isolated and filled with anxiety, they delve deeper into what they know historically has given them some brief periods of relative happiness – alcohol and drugs. This trend, although tragic, is completely needless because it is based on misinformation that can easily be debunked.

The Truth Will, AND DOES, Set You Free

History will reveal whether or not the shutdown was necessary, what the merits of it were, and how we might have done things differently to gain better results with a virus of this type. But unlike COVID 19 and all its unknowns, researchers have clear and concise facts about addiction that build a solid case for a silver lining. Here it is – most people get over their addictions, and most people do that without being treated. I know, this seems impossible. That is because we are told no one gets over addiction without help. (This idea comes from a treatment and recovery industry that financially benefits from a revolving door of suffering and naïve customers – the American “addict” and “alcoholic.”) We are told treatment and recovery are necessary. We are told that addicts and alcoholics suffer from a progressive, incurable brain disease that only lifelong treatment can abate. These are all lies.

It’s time to tell the truth and shed light on a better future for those struggling with addictions. In the book, The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, we have compiled a plethora of research that shows how people get over their addictions with consistent and almost boring regularity. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as moving on from one habit to another is a completely normal aspect of being human. Unlike COVID 19, addiction is NOT a disease and therefore it doesn’t require anything but a choice to stop. And it goes further than that – anxiety and boredom and stress are not causes of addiction. Again I know, this sounds impossible, but it’s true. Here are two excerpts from The Freedom Model that discuss these two realities:

1. People get over their addictions:

The US government has carried out several epidemiological studies that surveyed tens of thousands of people to find out about their mental health and substance use histories. Every such study that’s been done has found that a majority of people, treated or not, eventually resolve their substance use problems. The following chart shows 3 such studies. (Heyman, 2013)

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As you can see, between the 3 studies shown here, approximately 80% of people who were ever “addicted to drugs” were not currently “addicted.” That is, they resolved their drug use problems. Collectively, those studies surveyed over 60,000 people in the general population. Data like this makes mincemeat of the biased handfuls of subjects most addiction studies pull from treatment programs only.

The last study on that chart, NESARC, had the largest survey group (43,000 people), and offered some of the most detailed information available. It offered data that compared treated alcoholics to untreated alcoholics. Take a look at the results in the chart below.

As you can see, the likelihood of ending alcohol dependence is nearly equal for both treated and untreated alcoholics (slightly higher if you don’t get treatment). All of them met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol addiction, and yet it made almost no difference whether they were treated or not, most eventually resolved their problems.

What would you say if you took a group of people with a disease, gave some of them medical treatment, and gave the others no treatment, yet both groups recovered equally? You’d have to conclude that both groups resolved their problems by their own power. You’d conclude that the treatment doesn’t really work. And if it doesn’t work, then you certainly wouldn’t say that it’s “needed.”

2. Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Don’t CAUSE addiction:

“Next, there are those professionals who are obsessed with the psychological causes of addiction. These include mood disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and trauma/PTSD. The way it’s told by treatment professionals, these “co-occurring disorders” or “underlying causes” leave the substance user with an absolute need for substance use that he will continue to feed until someone outside himself can properly treat his conditions. Here’s how a doctor who works with high-priced rehabs describes the plight of people with substance use problems:

“The vast majority of people with these co-occurring disorders do not receive treatment for both their substance abuse problem and their other co-occurring conditions, which is why most treatment programs have high relapse rates.

If you don’t treat the co-occurring condition, then the person is going to continue to have a need to medicate, and if their prescription medications don’t meet their needs adequately, then they’re going to begin to self-medicate again.” (Leeds)

These treatment programs enroll substance users in every kind of therapy possible, diagnose mental illness, prescribe psychiatric meds, and try to root out hidden traumas, as a way to indirectly cause the substance user to stop wanting and using substances. Modern rehabs have dived headlong into this strategy, and yet they still have the same dismal success rates. “Compliance with treatment” is yet again another obstacle in this model. These treatment professionals often can’t seem to cause their patients to continue attending therapy and group counseling, use their “alternative coping methods,” or keep taking their psychiatric meds on schedule. What’s more, many people “comply” with all of these treatment methods, yet they still find themselves desiring and using substances. In this case, when questioned the believer in the causal power of “co-occurring disorders” will explain that they simply haven’t found the right cocktail of meds and therapies yet.

The fact is, the issue for the individual to figure out is simply this: will further heavy substance use make me happy enough or not? This has not been directly resolved at the level of thought for the struggling individual, so whether the “underlying causes” are resolved or not, he may still desire heavy substance use. This is because those conditions aren’t really underlying “causes.” They may be seen as reasons to use substances by some people at some times, but the fact that everything is going well in life may also be seen as a reason to use substances heavily.

We need to make a note about “psychological causes of addiction” to be clear what our stance is. Heavy substance use is absolutely a matter of psychology; people want it and choose to do it because of how they think. That is to say, it is a matter of the mind and thus psychological. The Freedom Model stance is that people are free to choose to think differently and this will change the way they feel and behave so in that sense, substance use is a matter of psychology. However, when treatment professionals speak of psychological causes, (emphasis added) they are usually referring to mental disorders or diseases, which they believe to be out of control of the individual, and to be the cause of that individual’s substance use.

There are many more proposed “causes of addiction,” and the fact is that none of them truly hold water because when the claim is that one thing causes another, this should be readily observable and verifiable in every case, yet it never is with respect to substance use. Causal relationships are not subjective by nature. If I told you putting a lit match to an open tank of gasoline “causes” a fiery explosion, you could test this claim. Assuming you survived the explosion, you could do it a hundred times and it will always result in an explosion. But if I told you that poverty causes addiction, and you went to a poor neighborhood to survey 100 people, you might find somewhere between 5 and 20 people who currently fit the diagnosis of addiction. Why weren’t the other 80 people caused to use substances heavily? Then you could go to a high priced treatment center, and find nothing but people who grew up in wealth and luxury. What caused them to become addicted if not poverty? Or say I told you trauma causes addiction. If you rounded up 100 people with high trauma scores, only 15 of them might also have “alcoholism.” This is what the research shows. Yet people proudly claim that trauma causes addiction, as if the only response to traumatic events is to dive headlong into heavy substance use. In fact, this response to trauma is the exception, not the rule – the other 85 are not addicted. Are they superheroes with magical powers somehow able to flout the law that trauma causes addiction?

These claims of “causes” are based on nothing more than probabilities and correlations. Some reliable percentage of people with depression or anxiety problems also has substance use problems (20%). This correlation doesn’t indicate that depression and anxiety cause addiction, or even that these phenomena are related in any meaningful way. If there is a relationship, it could be that some depressed people think that getting high is a good way to deal with their depression, or they may even think it relieves the depression. Or it could be that heavy substance use leads to depression. There could be any number of reasons that some people with depression also use substances heavily, but there is nothing that shows heavy substance use is a necessary result of depression, in the same way that an explosion is the necessary result of putting a lit match to gasoline.”

The point is, if we constantly tell people they are caused to use substances because of the pressures that have occurred as a result of the shutdown, namely: isolation, depression, loneliness, and trauma, then that can become a reason for heavier use. You literally create the situation that is fueling their substance use. Again, beliefs matter! This idea only gets worse if the word “causes” is used – “The COVID shutdown ‘causes’ more addiction.” No, the belief that it causes more addiction makes all the other options that could benefit the user no longer viable. If a substance user is caused to use, well, then just like the COVID 19 victim, the user is now a victim of the shutdown itself; just another minion of isolation and depression; a victim of the times.

But remember the facts! The vast majority of people get over their addictions and do so without formal treatment, and the vast majority of those with mental illnesses and mood disorders such as anxiety and depression are not addicted. This builds the case to change one’s view as they sit in COVID caused isolation. They don’t have to get drunk and high to drown out their isolation, stress, or depression – they have a choice. Like the father who decides to use the downtime to rebuild a home or a marriage, the “addict” can unseat his belief in “causal addiction” and instead, shift his/her mindset to choosing better for themselves.

Here’s the silver ling in the truth – you are not caused to get high and drunk, you choose to do it. You are not diseased nor do you have a disorder – you have personal reasons for substance use – and you can reevaluate and change those reasons. And finally, even if you are having a hard time while in COVID caused isolation, you can choose not to drink or drug heavily. Because in the end, the only factor that matters in this entire situation, is what we believe, and then how we choose to live based on those beliefs.

Mr. Mark Scheeren is the Co-Founder and Chairman of the St. Jude Retreat, as is co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, the original Non-12-Step approach for people who struggle with serious substance use issues. Mr. Scheeren and his staff of Researchers and Instructors have helped many thousands find permanent solutions to their drug and alcohol problems.

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