Casualty of the Pandemic: A Frightening Rise in Substance Abuse

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By Michael Gold

A sometimes-unrecognized casualty of the pandemic in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties, and frankly all over, is an increase in substance abuse.

Use of marijuana, opioids, alcohol and other drugs in the region have all increased during the pandemic, leaving more scars on residents and their families.

“Isolation, increased stress and fear of the unknown all played a major role in the rise of substance abuse during the pandemic, among all age groups and demographics,” stated Jana Wu, program manager for outpatient services at Mountainside Treatment Center in Chappaqua.

“So many people went from having a routine of being social in some way (work, going to the grocery store, gym, seeing family, school, etc.) and all that stopped pretty much overnight,” Wu wrote in an e-mail.

Wu said she has seen more people coming in who are using marijuana and THC, which is the chemical in marijuana that alters and impairs your brain activity.

“The pandemic is the busiest (time) in my life,” Wu said in an interview. “We’ve seen a steady increase in people really needing and asking for help. The pandemic has been stressful for so long. People are really uncomfortable.”

“There’s an increase in everything (types of drugs) because of stresses, like economic dislocation,” said state Sen. Peter Harckham (D-Lewisboro), chair of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. “People are self-medicating all over their communities, at home, in their car, in bathrooms in fast food restaurants. It’s in the shadows, people suffering in silence. It’s a hidden problem.”

Also, marijuana traffickers are mixing fentanyl and other ingredients with their products, which increases its toxicity and causes unwanted side effects, Wu said. She calls it “a scary experience.”

“Fentanyl and other things are mixed in (with marijuana), from labs in Mexico and Colombia,” Wu explained. “There is no safe recreational drug use now. You really don’t know where this drug is coming from.”

“People are seeing or hearing things when they’re high,” she said. “They’re having audio and visual hallucinations.”

Another threat is that some are experiencing psychotic episodes. Additionally, teens are vaping marijuana more frequently.

“Lots of kids under 21 years old are buying weed cartridges online,” Wu said.

Pleasantville Police Detective Joseph Zane reported in an e-mail that the village had five drug overdose incidents in 2021, with one of those resulting in a fatality. In 2019, the village had three overdoses, with one fatality.

“We do live in a small jurisdiction, but it does appear that 2020-21 did have a higher number of incidents,” Zane stated. “The majority of incidents included opiate abuse, but luckily, with the use of Narcan, officers were able to treat these patients quickly on scene to avoid fatalities.”

“I also believe drinking became more socially normalized at the start of the pandemic,” Wu added. “Many people were having cocktail hours via Zoom.”

A Rand Corporation study, published in September 2020, found that American adults had sharply increased their alcohol consumption during the shutdown.

The “overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14 percent among adults over age 30, compared to the same time last year,” the research stated. The same study found that women have increased “heavy drinking episodes (four or more drinks within a couple of hours) by 41 percent.”

People are drinking more wine, Wu said, thinking it’s not that damaging, when it’s toxic to your liver and can harm brain activity. Some of the people she’s seen walking into Mountainside have consumed two bottles of wine over a weekend.

Wu said she sees a slight increase in the use of LSD and even nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which is addictive and can harm your brain and physical functions. Abuse of Xanax, a prescription drug for anxiety, has also increased, she said.

“People are self-medicating,” Harckham explained. “It’s bad in our area.”

There’s an increase in abuse of all substances, Harckham said. Fentanyl is worsening the situation, he said.

“Fentanyl is poisoning the drug supply,” Harckham stated. “We see fentanyl-laced pot. It’s in cocaine.”

Fentanyl was a major contributor to overdose deaths in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). More than 100,000 Americans died from overdose deaths, from April 2020 to April 2021, the CDC reported. New York suffered more than 3,600 overdose deaths in that period, the fifth-highest of any state.

“Families are impacted. It doesn’t matter how much money you have,” Harckham said. “People have trauma and trauma doesn’t go away just because the pandemic seems to be ebbing.”

Harckham is helping to get substance abusers in treatment, through legislation and increased state funding for prevention, treatment, harm reduction and recovery.

“It (substance use disorder) is a disease,” Harckham said. “Everybody is susceptible. There’s a lot of shame about reaching out for help. Our priority is to save lives. We want to focus on recovery, with peer support. We want to get folks the support they need to get treatment.”

Wu emphasized the importance for people with substance use disorders to get help.
“I really believe in this work, to get people to live their lives better. Families are suffering the most. They can talk about this and not suppress it,” she said.

“People are struggling, but they are coming for help. I get to work on the healing.”

Pleasantville resident Michael Gold has had articles published in the New York Daily News, the Albany Times-Union, The Virginian-Pilot, The Palm Beach Post and other newspapers.

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