Each September, the United States recognizes National Recovery Month, providing an opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of mental health and substance use disorders.
Millions of people in the United States and around the world experience the devastating consequences of drug use. Rich and poor, educated and uneducated, male and female, and even young children die from substance use disorders each year, and many more are victims of drug-fueled violence. According to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 71,000 people died in the United States from drug overdoses in 2019. Globally, drug use contributes to an estimated 167,000 deaths annually.
Recovery from drug use is a process, and COVID-19 amplifies many of the challenges of maintaining a healthy lifestyle in recovery. People struggling with or in recovery from a substance use disorder may face difficulties from the pandemic itself and from the necessary public health measures implemented to slow its spread. Globally, social isolation and economic worries drive greater rates of relapse, and treatment in a group setting may be inaccessible. People who maintain recovery through the use of medication, like methadone or buprenorphine, may be unable to access these medicines safely due to quarantine measures. People who use drugs are also more likely to face housing instability that prevents them from physically distancing from others. They may have underlying medical conditions that put them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 and face barriers to receiving medical treatment if they become ill with the coronavirus. Additionally, the economic downturn has affected many of the world’s most vulnerable, including those struggling with substance use disorder. As public health systems around the world focus their efforts on containing COVID-19, it is critical that we recognize and address the special clinical needs of people recovering from drug dependency.
Given these challenges, the Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) remains committed to supporting evidence-based programs that seek both to prevent drug use and to treat substance use disorders around the world. INL supports youth engagement through prevention training and mentoring, and its programs focus on building healthy social skills, promoting alternatives to drug use, and supporting the emotional and academic development of youth. INL also supports the creation of community coalitions to bring together a variety of stakeholders including schools, businesses, parent groups, healthcare providers, faith organizations, social service agencies, law enforcement, government agencies, and the media to address local factors that contribute to drug use. This approach has been empirically shown to reduce drug use and stem crime. Working with Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America since 2012, INL has supported the establishment of over 200 community coalitions in 28 countries with over 11,352 active members globally.
INL programming also addresses the need for well-informed and professional practices in substance use disorder treatment globally. INL initiated the International Society of Substance Use Professionals (ISSUP) to ensure best practices and cutting-edge research are accessible to our partners. This professional organization brings together over 12,000 members to strengthen research, practice, and policy making to improve treatment by providing a channel for colleagues to share ideas and promote cooperation. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ISSUP and other INL-supported organizations have pivoted to online training, through webinars, mentoring, and online courses to ensure that practitioners in the field continue to have access to the evidence-based treatment practices. The online format brings together experts to share strategies for overcoming the new barriers to services imposed by the pandemic.
Those in recovery and their supporters play a vital role in supporting drug users as they seek to change their lives. INL is piloting two new courses that empower family members, significant others, and allies to deliver recovery support services, especially in locations where there are limited treatment options. The UN Office of Drug Control will lead a peer review of the courses by global experts to ensure that the final versions are effective and in line with evidence-based practices.
While COVID-19 has complicated the mission, effective substance use prevention and treatment remains fundamental to a comprehensive counternarcotics strategy that improves public health and safety and protects U.S. interests and security. Healthier communities benefit us all, and even as we work to mitigate the worst public health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot forget the needs and vulnerabilities of people in recovery. Meeting these joint challenges requires partnerships among a range of actors and sharing evidence-based solutions. Under President Trump’s leadership, the Department is dedicated to advancing this cooperation and celebrating more people joining the road to recovery each and every September.
About the Authors: Dr. Andrew Thompson is a neuroscientist and Narcotics Science Advisor and Charlotte Sisson is a Foreign Affairs Officer for the Office of Global Programs and Policy in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. Christy Doherty is a Public Diplomacy Officer for the Strategy, Communications, and Outreach Unit of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.