Our international president and Executive Director of Drug-Free America Foundation, Amy Ronshausen, has given a statement for the 5th International Capacity Building Programme of the Green Crescent on December 9, 2020. It makes an important statement regarding the risk and vulnerability for drug use/overdose in times of COVID-19.
Read the full statement below:
Good Afternoon. I’m Amy Ronshausen and I am the executive director of drug free America foundation a national and international drug policy and prevention organization committed to developing strategies that prevent drug use and promote sustained recovery. I also serve as the international president of the World Federation Against Drugs, a multilateral community of non-governmental organizations and individuals working for a drug free world.
Both Drug Free America and World Federation Against Drugs are active members of the Istanbul Initiative which serves as a collaboration for global addiction prevention activities. This initiative was started to bring like-minded organizations together in order to develop new global strategies around prevention. The initiative allows for members to contribute their collective expertise, commitment, and passion into the policy making process, a vital part of prevention advocacy.
And today that advocacy is more important than ever.
The most recent World Drug Report estimates that 269 million people, or 5.3 per cent of the global population aged 15–64, used drugs in the previous year. This is an increase of 30% from just a decade ago. Adolescents and young adults account for the largest share of those using drugs.
More than 35 million people are estimated to be suffering from drug use disorders but only one in eight people who need drug-related treatment services receive it. For people with substance use disorders, the availability of services remains limited at the global level. One of three drug users is female however women only account for one in five of individuals in treatment. Minorities, immigrants, and displaced people also face barriers to treatment services due to discrimination and stigma.
With more than 35 million globally estimated to have a substance use disorder and an estimated 585,000 lives lost because of drug use in just one year, one could argue we are experiencing a global drug crisis. The numbers are devastating but the reality is heartbreaking, these are our beloved friends, family members, neighbors, co-workers. It is important that as we talk about the numbers, we remember that each one of them represents a member of our global society.
Previous research demonstrates that substance use as well as deaths related to drug and alcohol use increase during times of social and economic upheaval. Measures put in place to combat the COVID-19 pandemic such as shelter-in-place orders, have been associated with negative emotions, such as irritability, anxiety, fear, sadness, anger or boredom. These conditions often initiate drug use, trigger relapse, even for those in long-term recovery, or intensify drug consumption. In addition to being a catalyst for drug use, COVID 19 has caused limited medical assistance for substance use disorders because most medical efforts are geared towards the pandemic. The COVID 19 pandemic has to date resulted in 1.5 million deaths, and over 67 million reported cases pushing health care providers to their limits and causing an economic crisis. Shelter-in-place orders have pushed everyone into isolation leading to decreased access to prevention and treatment services as well as healthy outlets and activities that provide a distraction from addictions. Individuals on MAT had difficulty getting their medication in many parts of the world which increased their risk of relapse and overdose.
Before the coronavirus arrived, the U.S. was in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history, with a record 71,000 overdose deaths last year. We will not know the true impact of COIVD 19 as it relates to substance use for many years however preliminary data is grim and suggests the US overdose deaths with surpassing last year’s numbers. Public health officials are reporting spikes in drug overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 40 states reporting increases in opioid-involved overdose deaths, primarily related to illicit fentanyl.
While the pandemic has thrust us into uncharted waters, prevention professional all over the globe are meeting the challenge. COIVD 19 has forced us to reexamine our priorities, not just in the way we live, work and learn, but also in the way we do substance use prevention. As Prevention professionals we are suddenly forced to think outside of the box. With schools and businesses closed, sports and social clubs on hold our hands-on
approach is temporarily obsolete. For prevention, this means that we must meet people where they are at. I am continuously amazed at the creativity of global prevention community in how we learn to communicate and expand our capacity and am inspired by how in the face of a global pandemic NGOs have accepted the challenges and adapted to continue the mission.
But let us not forget that about our most vulnerable and prioritize those prevention efforts. Many are still not having their basic needs met and that must come first. A wash your hands message to prevent the spread of infectious disease is valuable and needed but so is the access to clean water to achieve that goal. We must make sure our prevention message is obtainable.
Preventing drug abuse, curbing addiction, and increasing the number of people in recovery requires a focus on education, policy reform and family and community engagement.
Addiction is a chronic disease that affects the brain, and individuals with substance use disorders deserve to be treated with dignity. We know that primary prevention and treatment work and that recovery is possible. Now more than ever it is important to understand and educate key stakeholders
that the development of a substance use disorder is related to the relationship between a number of risk and protective factors that are often beyond the control of an individual. It is our job to advocate for policies that enhance like skills that reduce risk factors and build up and enrich protective factors.
During the pandemic, we have seen an array of policies put in place to address the accessibility of substances. For example, a few countries banned the sale of alcohol while on lockdown. There is early data to suggest that the bans did decrease public health and public safety issues related to alcohol abuse while other information points to an increase in black market sales and dangerous home brews. In contrast in the US, alcohol stores and marijuana dispensaries were named as an essential business and allowed to remain open. Not only were they deemed essential, special rights were granted to allow for take away and delivery services that were previously considered illegal before the pandemic. What messages do these policies send to our youth?
The role of prevention in the era of COVID 19 and beyond should look at the public health response to this pandemic and learn from it. It is imperative that our prevention action plan includes seeking government support in making prevention a priority. Funding for prevention and drug-related programs with the development of interventions governments are implementing to address the negative societal costs related to the pandemic are vital. Advocacy efforts should include Integrating substance use prevention and treatment with COVID- 19 response and recovery efforts. As we create teams to test, track and trace COVID-19 infections, we must also treat patients and their family members suffering from, or at risk for mental health and substance use disorders and to make sure those with OUD have access to MAT and naloxone.
Our prevention efforts should include educational campaigns on the heightened risks of substance use in the context of COVID-19 and information on where individuals can turn for help. The pandemic has created the greatest forced isolation in our modern history. It is imperative to remain socially connected through events like this and to advocate for mechanisms to provide resources for rural areas and minority community who may not have the bandwidth or internet access to host such events.
As the world talked about infectious disease control our internal conversations at Drug Free America were focused on how the pandemic would to impact our world. We immediately understood that self-isolation was not going to be good for people in treatment or recovery. We worried about kids who might be stuck at home with a substance using parent. We quickly refocused and went to work creating educational resources on how COIVD 19 impacts mental health and substance use, how vaping and smoking could increase or worsen COVID outcomes, and we partnered with state and national organizations to create resources such as ones to help teachers identify a possible drug endangered child through virtual classrooms. We hosted global webinars to learn how COIVD was impacting drug demand reduction efforts and shared challenges and strategies to continue our collective global mission.
We see that COVID 19 has significantly increased risk factors that make individuals vulnerable to potential behavioral health issues, in this case substance abuse. As a staff we wanted to create something that reminded adults that the most important thing they can do for the youth in their lives is build those protective factors. And so with that I will close by sharing with you a screening of our latest video that in the last 4 weeks has been viewed more than 50,000 times worldwide.