When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, it created the perfect storm of conditions for increased substance use, causing overdose deaths to soar.

Data from the CDC indicates there were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. from April 2020 to April 2021.[*] That’s an increase of 28.5% from the same period the previous year and a 39% increase from 2019.

Why Did the Pandemic Ignite Drug Use? 

Many factors contributed to this upswing. People lost their jobs. Social and family interactions were limited. Those in recovery lost access to in-person support and resources they relied on to stay healthy in body and mind. Not to mention, fear and anxiety about the virus itself gripped many.

The added stress and loss of support caused many people who were getting their substance use under control before the pandemic to regress. In other cases, the pandemic was a trigger that caused people to initiate drug use for the first time or relapse after many years of abstinence. In fact, research shows that nearly one in four young adults (ages 18 to 24) started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions linked to the pandemic.[*]

A Look into Addiction Recovery

A whopping 23.5 million adults (ages 18+) are in recovery from alcohol or drug addictions. That’s 10% of the U.S population. Even more startling is that the estimated return-to-use (relapse) rate is 40 to 60%.[*]

Unfortunately, most people struggling with substance use disorder never receive the help they need, with only 11.2% receiving treatment for their addiction in a specialized facility.[*] Needless to say, these numbers were made even worse by the isolation and stress of the pandemic.

The Shift to Telehealth Services 

While the pandemic has been devastating on so many levels, it also spurred innovative approaches to supporting those with physical or mental health challenges.

The pivot to telehealth allowed for continued or new access to support and care despite isolation. For example, behavioral health services among Medicare beneficiaries increased 32-fold during the pandemic. Recognizing the success of telehealth for a variety of health matters triggered an important question: can digital technology support be effective for those battling substance use disorder?

As measured through the Brief Addiction Monitor survey, the answer is a resounding “yes”—support through app-based technology is linked to reduced relapse rate. App-based technology makes it much easier for those in recovery to receive support from qualified professionals and peers whenever and wherever they need it.

Having virtual access to these resources has been invaluable during the pandemic when in-person contact has been limited, and will remain an asset well beyond the pandemic.

The Importance of Peer Support in SUD Recovery

We all know the importance of receiving counseling from a trained therapist and treatment from a doctor, but how does receiving support from peers benefit those in recovery?

Peer support specialists provide additional, complementary support to therapy and treatment. Often, peers have personal experience with substance use disorder and can provide important guidance without judgment. In addition to sharing their own experiences, peers can guide others to community support programs, reinforce recovery strategies, and provide emotional support for those in recovery.

Utilization of peer support services is linked to:

Combining Technology and Peer Support to Combat the SUD Crisis 

While in-person peer support was readily available before the pandemic, the ability to connect with peers face-to-face was limited or completely restricted once stay-at-home orders and social distancing were enforced.

This is where app-based technology changed the game, allowing those in recovery to access peer support with just a few taps of their smartphone. Fusing technology with peer support is the foundation of the Connections app from CHESS—an evidence-based app that supports the addiction management and recovery lifecycle. Through our app, patients have access to personalized recovery resources and connections with peers, when and where they need them.

Our research has shown that the combination of app-based technology and peer support results in demonstrably improved outcomes for those in recovery. Here are a few statistics that highlight the benefits:

  • Using the Connections app correlates with patients staying in treatment 20%+ longer, including 30-45% reductions in early drop-out from intensive outpatient programs.
  • Those using the Connections app experienced 30-50% greater abstinence than the control group, with 6-12-month follow-up.
  • A Medicaid MCO measured a $270 PMPM total cost of care savings among members with the Connections app vs. a similar cohort without the app.

App-based technology is also particularly beneficial to those with limited access to in-person services for reasons other than pandemic restrictions. This was demonstrated by a study involving impoverished substance-using Appalachian women, which concluded that using mobile technology like the Connections app may help improve their recovery outcomes.[*]

Support During COVID-19 and Beyond

In many ways, the pandemic created an ideal breeding ground for substance use disorder. Drug use skyrocketed and we, as a country, lost some of the progress we made in reducing drug overdoses in recent years. It’s truly been a crisis on top of a crisis.

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. lacked a robust treatment infrastructure for substance use disorder. Now, with the impacts of the pandemic, we need to provide even more comprehensive services and support for this population.

CHESS Health works towards this goal every day by supporting SUD patients through our research-backed Connections app. We are uniquely positioned to help the public sector, payers, and healthcare providers combat the SUD crisis by providing those in recovery with easy access to the resources they need to achieve higher abstinence rates and reduced relapses.

The pandemic may be slowly but surely calming down, but the drug crisis is not. Ensuring that those with SUD have easy access to the tools and support they need is the crux of recovery and something we must band together to achieve. Contact us today to learn more about the life-saving technology we offer.