How technology helps Utahns with substance use disorders in a pandemic

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Alano Club in Murray on Thursday, April 2, 2020. The club once hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, which have been canceled because of coronavirus.

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About three weeks ago, Polly H. walked into her last Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, at least for a while, and she didn’t even know it.

Now instead of sitting around a big table, the dozen or so people she leans on for support at least once a week are on a screen, their faces in little boxes next to hers.

Polly, who asked that her name be abbreviated because of privacy concerns, said the online meetings were easy enough to join. You just download the app and click on a link. But most importantly, Polly says the online meetings still provide her a key element of the AA program: She realizes everything isn’t about her.

“And,” she added, “that drinking over something isn’t gonna change it. It’s just going to change me.”

Still, people are struggling, she said. She’s seen it in her virtual meetings. It’s tough trying to stay sober when society has ground to an anxiety-inducing halt.

In the time of the coronavirus, those who work with people in recovery say the pressure is building.

Normal stresses are compounded by self-isolation, and some people whose jobs were deemed nonessential can no longer work. Or, those with jobs might be putting themselves at risk by going. And while Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous meetings and other support groups have mostly gone online, some people who rely on them don’t have access to the internet, said Mary Jo McMillen, executive director of Utah Support Advocates for Recovery Awareness, known as USARA.

“Being around other people who have gone through a similar experience really does help you feel less anxious, more hopeful," she said, “And because that’s not happening in person for many people, it does increase their sense of isolation.”

McMillen said all of the USARA staffers are in recovery, and they’ve been struggling, too. And she’s heard that some of their clients have relapsed.

It’s difficult, she said. Most people don’t like self-isolation. They especially don’t like not knowing when their lives will return to normal. And when lives aren’t normal, people can’t always lean on the coping skills they’ve developed.

Sometimes people with substance issues have difficult family relationships, said Brent Kelsey, assistant director of the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. Now they’re stuck inside for an extended period of time with those family members.

Additionally, McMillen said, people may develop a dependence because they are drinking more than normal to cope with self-isolation.

Utah has seen alcohol sales rise during this crisis, especially when comparing this March to last March.

On March 12, Gov. Gary Herbert called for Utahns to stop gathering in groups of more than 100, as the severity of this crisis was just starting to come into view. Now people are told not to congregate with anyone outside of your household.

That day, the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, or DABC, recorded more than $2.6 million in sales, compared with about $1.5 million the previous year. The following day, DABC sold about $3.3 million, roughly $1 million more than the same day in 2019. Since then, the social isolation restrictions have stiffened. The liquor stores have stayed open, but with limits on the number of customers who can enter at any time. Lines form outside many liquor stores each day.

People aren’t just buying more alcohol — more people are buying, too, department spokesman Terry Wood said. Walk-in business has increased from March 12 to March 28 by 32%, he said.

Kelsey, with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said he’s worried that if people do use substances and need medical help, like for an overdose, the hospitals and emergency responders may be too overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases to assist.

To help people who need it, the division is offering a 60-day free trial to MyStrength, a personalized mental health and wellness app, Kelsey said.

Information about the app can be found at the division’s website, dsamh.utah.gov.

There are also lists of resources available on USARA’s website, myusara.com, including support for those who live with or love people with substance use disorders.

Treatment centers are still open. So are the crisis lines, like the University of Utah’s, which can be reached at 801-587-3000.

Also, McMillen said, people should be reaching out to others when they can. It helps people on both sides of the call to feel less alone.

Dancing helps, too, she said. And laughing, and reading, and exercising — anything that can get you to shift your physical and emotional energy.

“I think some of those practices that are pretty basic things,” McMillen said, “that we don’t usually get to do in our busy lives can really be helpful at this time.”

And for those who take strength from being in a group, like Polly, AA meetings can be found at saltlakeaa.org and utahaa.org. NA meetings are at nautah.org.

Editor’s note: Those seeking support can call the University of Utah’s WARMLINE from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at 801-587-1055. The U.'s crisis line is available 24/7 at 801-587-3000. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK. In an emergency, call 911.