In Manitoba, death due to overdose has risen 87% since the beginning of the pandemic, and we are currently on the path to see that number rise by the end of 2021. British Columbia has seen their highest number of overdoses during the pandemic. During one of my classes, my professor mentioned that alcohol sales are currently matching the height that they reached after the twin towers fell. So where am I going with this?
In psychology there is a theory called the dislocation theory of addiction (I’ve linked the book and authors website here.) Bruce Alexander based his theory on a study that he and his colleagues conducted, it is most commonly called “Rat Park”. Long story short, when the rats in rat park are enjoying life, have lots of toys, other rats to be social with, and are thriving in their environment, the rats use less drugs. However, when we put rats in an undesirable environment, including social isolation, steel cages, and being tied up, they develop drug addictions. So this led Alexander to develop a theory that when isolated and in undesirable environments, some humans (and animals) turn to substance use to cope.
The lock downs that occurred during the Covid19 pandemic, and are still affecting much of the world, looked similar to the conditions that created drug addictions in rats. We lost our social interaction, many people lost their source of income or became confined to their home, and many lost the ability to participate in the activities that normally assist us in enjoying life. Compare that to our rats in the undesirable environment, social isolation, confined to one space, a lack of access to activities, does this sound familiar? Addiction is a field in psychology that has a lot of theories, and tends to be a complicated issue that every therapist has an opinion on. However, I cannot help but see the similarities in the environments that create addiction in rats and the environment that the pandemic created. Add the current statistics on the rise of substance use, and it is hard to ignore the similarity between the lockdown environments and the environments that led rats to use drugs. In Australia, another country experiencing lockdowns, those with addictions have been struggling to access care due to an overburdened mental health care system, and they have been finding the treatment they do have access to is not satisfactory, due to the pandemic induced restrictions. You have now added a lack of adequate care to the list of isolating factors that individuals need to cope with during a serious global issue.
Now the important question is, how do we cope with, and recover from the effects of the pandemic? If we take my theory I have just provided, then recreating desirable environments may be part of the solution. Creating ways to enjoy social activities that do not involve alcohol or other substances, supports that include access to health care and access to livable incomes. Providing harm reduction methods, which are proven to reduce the risks associated with substance use. This includes lowering amounts taken and using sanitary equipment to consume. These techniques are even beneficial when not facing a global pandemic or coping with an addiction, having a higher quality of life is associated with better mental health as a whole. However, I acknowledge that addiction is more complex than just providing people with a nice environment to live in, there are additional factors like trauma, oppression, coping with withdrawal, etc. Yet, helping people access basic needs and creating a society that allows people to thrive is a place to start, because how can we expect someone to recover from addiction if they do not have a society that supports their recovery?