This new way of living has meant being forced to stay at home, being physically isolated from our loved ones, having to rethink daily routines and activities to fit the walls of this new world. For many, these changes have lead to a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, impacting their mental health and sense of wellbeing. Some have had the support of their friends and family, making it easier for them to feel that they were not alone in this process, bringing hope for a better future. Others have had no choice but to wait alone until this passes.
How can these difficult changes be related to drug dependency? For some people who use drugs, as well as their families, carers and communities, the pandemic lifestyle has been their way of living for many years.
The vast majority of people who use drugs and alcohol never access a service or a specialist for treatment. But many people who experience drug dependency live a life where their lack of support fuels their dependency, sustaining a lifestyle that revolves around drugs and alcohol. You could say they live in constant lockdown, isolated in their own routines, developing mental health problems and building up a life with a poor sense of wellbeing.
Many families and carers of people with a drug and alcohol dependency experience similar feelings of helplessness, frustration and a lack of the resources needed. A similar feeling, perhaps, to that of the many families who have been raising their children and caring for their loved ones during lockdown with little support or acknowledgement. Families often feel as though they are constantly trying to offer care without any route map or knowledge other than their desire to see them “get better”. Without support, families are exposed to high levels of stress and risky situations that increase the already overwhelming sense of hopelessness and isolation.
Communities are also discouraged to take action in the context of government-sanctioned stigma and discrimination towards people who use drugs. As in the pandemic, where people may feel unable to protect their neighbours and community members from the virus, people who use drugs problematically are often viewed as hopeless causes; as disposable.
Current drug policy focusses primarily on enforcing prohibition and on abstinence-only approaches to drug treatment, promoting a life without drug use, or a “drug-free world”. Though these programmes can be very successful at reducing or eliminating problematic drug use for an individual, they fail to understand the true nature of dependency: a complex and multidimensional collective public health issue.
It is never a substance alone that causes problematic use, but also the broader issues that surround them. When people that live with drug and alcohol dependency do not receive wider support for housing, financial, occupational, psychological and other health and medical issues, their living conditions and wellbeing are severely at risk. How can we expect to reduce the harmful effects of dependency and the impact at the individual, family and community level, if our measure of success relies solely on how much a person is or is not consuming?
Only when we begin taking action and responsibility for dependency from a public health perspective, instead of a criminal justice and prohibition perspective, will communities be resourced to improve their quality of life in a “post pandemic world”.
Just like the development of the vaccine for the COVID-19, we need to develop one for this other pandemic too; a vaccine not only designed for the people who use drugs, but for their families, carers and communities too. A vaccine called a community-based approach. A vaccine available to all.