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Pandemic poses challenges for people in recovery from substance abuse

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This is the second story in a two-part series about the psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Sherri Feathers is the senior vice president of specialty services at Frontier Health, which provides a variety of behavioral and mental health services for residents in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Feathers said that when the COVID-19 pandemic first reached the region and everything began to shut down, she and her staff initially saw a decrease in people reaching out for support.

“But then, as time went by and restrictions kind of let up, we saw an increase,” she explained during a June 1 phone interview.

Feathers said the increase has been particularly pronounced for people struggling with substance abuse disorders.

“We have been seeing people who have a history of addiction, people who have been in recovery for a period of time, who have experienced relapse,” said Feathers, a 57-year-old licensed clinical social worker.

“For people in recovery, routine and consistency and structure have been important for them and give them hope, and they lost that [when the pandemic reached the region],” she explained.

Sherry Barnett echoed that perspective. Barnett is a regional overdose prevention specialist for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, as well as a registered nurse who works at a medication-assisted substance abuse treatment clinic. She has also been clean for six years after her own struggle with drug addiction.

“From a state standpoint, overdoses have increased,” Barnett said in a June 1 phone interview. “And I have seen a few more overdoses in our area than we usually do monthly.”

Barnett added that she’s also noticed that some clinics that offer substance abuse treatment — through drug testing, counseling and controlled medications like suboxone — have not been offering those services during the pandemic. She said that not being able to participate in such treatment or attend in-person support groups presents huge risks for people laboring to heal from addiction.

“A lot of people in recovery depend on accountability to keep them moving forward,” Barnett explained. “Sometimes, when we don’t have that accountability, our brain starts playing tricks on us. That we can do this, we can do that, and get away with it one time.”

Barnett said that she’s been pushing to stay in touch with many of the folks in recovery she works with. Some have been responsive. Others have gone radio silent.

“[This pandemic has given] people that are unstable the opportunity to go off [the] radar,” Barnett said. “That’s scary because it promotes overdoses.”

Barnett did say she’s been encouraged by the creative ways some local anti-drug organizations have found to stay in touch with their members — among them, Zoom meetings and meal delivery services for people in recovery dealing with food insecurity.

“They’re being as creative as crap to keep people involved,” she said. “That gives me hope.”


Feathers and Kaylee Murphy, a licensed professional counselor at the Bristol, Tennessee branch of Thriveworks, a counseling group, also reported one silver lining for mental health emerging from the pandemic: In order to see patients during the shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, both Thriveworks and Frontier Health began meeting with most of their patients through video chats — and they said that a lot of patients were excited to have that new treatment option.

“That has really sparked an interest in folks,” Feathers said. “I think people who may not have reached out [to us] before have reached out because of the availability of technology.”

“I think it’s opened us up to being able to help more people,” Murphy echoed. “This was maybe the push that the mental health industry needed to be able to provide more services to a larger population that wouldn’t be able to come in for face-to-face appointments.”

Still, Murphy said that counseling people remotely has brought its own set of challenges.

“There’s a lot you can miss, like body language, nonverbal cues you might see in person,” Murphy said. “It takes longer to make that connection and build a relationship with a client.”


Meanwhile, Bluff City resident Cathy Overstreet, who has been working from home during the pandemic, said that she and her family have created their own silver linings to help each other cope psychologically during the pandemic.

For example, her 8-year-old grandson, Scotty, loves to play basketball at school. After his school closed its building, Overstreet and her husband, Mark, installed a basketball hoop in their driveway. They also bought a portable hot tub since they don’t feel comfortable going back to their pool, which recently reopened.

And Overstreet said they’ve created their own rituals to maintain a sense of stability. One of her favorites is filling out her gratitude journal at the end of the day. Scotty has one, too, a kid-friendly version she found for him on Amazon. Overstreet said she got them both when she realized how sad Scotty was that he couldn’t see his school teachers and classmates after his school closed.

“Now we share our journals with each other,” she said. “He’s like, ‘Oh, what were you thankful for today? Here, this is what I’m thankful for.’ He’s been thankful for his mom, he’s been thankful for me. He’s been thankful for home. He’s been thankful for food on the table.”

The basketball hoop and the hot tub have also made it into his journal quite a bit, she said. | 276-645-2511 | Twitter: @swadely


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