“I have never, ever seen anything like this,” says Brook McKenzie, Director of Outreach at New Method Wellness Addiction Treatment Center in California, which normally averages five admissions per week. Over the past 14 days, though, they have only admitted one person. The “extraordinary freeze” and “near absolute holding pattern” of people seeking treatment, McKenzie says, is due to clients’ waiting until after the election to make the decision to go to rehab. As such, the number of inquiries for treatment is up dramatically, while the number of commitments is at an all-time low.
Case in point: There are currently 14 people awaiting the outcome of the election before scheduling a formal admission date. “People just don’t know where they’re going to stand financially come Thursday and Friday,” McKenzie tells me. “Are they still going to be able to afford treatment?” Some also want to see how COVID restrictions will change. Meanwhile, others didn’t want to be in treatment during a historic election. As a result, he anticipates the days and weeks ahead may be some of the busiest he’s ever experienced at New Method Wellness. “I mean, it’s crazy, man,” he says.
Compounding the craziness, overdose deaths in the U.S. have risen steadily amid the pandemic, increasing in May by 42 percent compared to the same month in 2019, with more than 40 states having reported increases in drug-related mortality, per the CDC.
Matt Bell, CEO of Midwest Recovery Center in Ohio, predicts the election will result in a “bombshell” of clients seeking treatment, as many who have been “holding on for dear life” will be shaken by the results. “Half of people won’t get their way, and many won’t be able to handle it,” he says, predicting “a lot” of drinking in the coming days. “It might not be tomorrow when the phone calls start coming in, but the trickle-down effect will surely result in a significant increase in admittance.” What’s more, admissions in early November have historically been very high because clients want to detox before heading home for Thanksgiving. “So it slows down for about a week, and then families are sick of Jimmy passing out in the mashed potatoes and they’re back in treatment again. I expect that to intensify this year.”
In anticipation of a flood of calls following the election, Amatus Recovery Center in Maryland, has significantly staffed up on phone representatives and clinicians, says Chief Operating Officer Michael Silberman, “given the trauma people are expected to experience.” Bell also has increased staff to handle the expected increase in inquiries, though most beds at Midwest Recovery Center are already full due to heightened pandemic admittance. “The sad part is, we’re going to have to say we’re going to help you find a treatment center, but unfortunately, it can’t be ours.”
Surprisingly, both McKenzie and Bell have seen a disproportionate number of clients seeking treatment for alcohol, rather than drugs. Nine out of ten admissions to New Method Wellness have recently been purely for alcohol abuse, McKenzie says, whereas pre-pandemic, it was more like six out of ten. He chalks this up to work lives being interrupted and people drinking more at home. “They don’t have traditional outlets like gyms and social engagements, so they’ve picked up new habits, many of which include alcohol.” Likewise, in the last month, Bell says there’s been a “significant increase” in individuals seeking treatment at Midwest Recovery Center for alcohol abuse disorder, whereas the vast majority of clients over the past five years have sought help for opiates. Addiction is a disconnection with the world, he explains, and the ability to walk into any grocery store to find something to take you away from the stressors of the day has been particularly appealing in 2020.
Still, William C. Moyers, Vice President of Public Affairs & Community Relations at Hazelden Betty Ford Addiction Treatment Center in Minnesota, tries not to lose sight of the big picture. After all, he notes, addiction is an illness that latches onto and rides the roller coaster of all human emotions — pandemic or no pandemic, election or no election.
“Heck, in the old days, I used substances when the sun was shining. I used substances when it was raining. I got stoned when I fell in love. I got drunk when I fell out of love. I smoked cocaine when I got a promotion at work. I took pills when somebody else got the job I thought I deserved,” he tells me. “Since Hazelden was born in 1949, we’ve stayed steadily busy through war and peace, recessions and rising stock markets, Democratic and Republican presidents, snowstorms and droughts, the breakup of the Beatles and the advent of rap and all the other ‘stuff’ that reminds us that ‘life on life’s terms in recovery’ is tough. But it sure does beat the alternative.”