The Danger Of Social Distancing For Those With Substance Use Disorder

Corona Virus graphic

As of this morning, there are close to 3,000 known cases of COVID-19 in the US. Of these, nearly 50 have resulted in death. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, believes the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. The degree to which it will get worse depends, according to Fauci, on how well the country works to mitigate exposure. As a way to align with this goal, local, state, and national entities have canceled many events that attract large crowds. School districts are closed. Libraries and community centers are closed. Workers who can work from home are being told to do so. While these “social distancing” actions are critical to controlling such a quickly spreading pandemic, they can be deadly for individuals living with a substance use disorder (SUD).

“Social isolation is extremely dangerous to the those in recovery and a leading contributor to relapse.” Hans Morefield, Chief Executive Officer, CHESS Health

The Importance of Connection

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.” This sentiment was shared in a widely viewed TedTalk by best-selling author Johann Hari. In the presentation, Hari described an experiment conducted by Bruce Alexander, professor emeritus in the department of psychology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The “Rat Park” experiment validated that when isolated even animals choose to alter their state leading to overdose and death. But when actively engaged in a community, these same animals (rats) actively chose to avoid water that included a narcotic.

While the happy “Rat Park” environment may not be a reality for most people, it does highlight the critical role of social connectedness in addiction prevention and recovery. This is one of the reasons why AA, Al-Anon, and NA programs have become so central to addiction recovery and why group meetings in treatment or during PHP and IOP are critical.  They offer social support and connectedness in a secure, nonjudgmental environment. Members often establish long-lasting relationships that extend well beyond the walls of the meeting room. Yet, in response to COVID-19, many of these meetings are being canceled, putting these vulnerable populations at greater risk of isolation and relapse.

Using Technology to Maintain Connectedness

One of the best ways to reduce isolation during a time of crisis is through SUD technology such as the Connections smartphone app, a part of the CHESS Health Platform from CHESS Health.

The Connections app gives SUD patients the tools they need right in the palm of their hands so they are never completely alone. They have access to people and resources whenever and where ever needed. The app is easy to learn and simple to use. Features include:

  • Secure messaging via text and email gives patients the ability to reach out to peers, providers, counselors, and others anytime day or night. It also enables caregivers the ability to proactively engage patients and to check in on their status.
  • Motivational tools like daily check-ins, journaling, and surveys help patients increase self-awareness and stay on track.
  • Treatment planning tools enable ongoing goal-setting and tracking of progress.
  • Educational resources such as podcasts, videos, and literature give to reinforce important coping skills and additional motivation as needed.
  • CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) programs provide evidence-based treatment options via any web-enabled device. This allows patients to receive ongoing care and support even when they can’t attend therapy sessions or their regular social support group.
  • Intervention resources allow patients to quickly notify caregivers if they experience a high-risk situation or have an urgent need for support or intervention.

While there are several SUD apps on the market, it’s important to use one that connects to an integrated care platform that allows more holistic treatment of the patient. This is especially important in times of crises as we are in now. The CHESS Platform offers providers the tools they need to better support and proactively engage patients no matter their situation or location. They’re able to lead or participate in discussion groups, chat with patients via secure messaging, or push audio, video, or other content to the patient. And they enable real-time notifications and emails of predictive risk alerts.


One of the primary goals of SUD recovery programs is to provide ongoing engagement between patients, peers, providers, family, friends, and other caregivers throughout the recovery journey. It’s at the very heart of the recovery process. Now that we’re all being asked—or told—to isolate ourselves through social distancing, it is critical we do all we can to mitigate the impact on our vulnerable SUD patients.

The eRecovery solution (part of the CHESS Health platform including additional solutions eIntervention and eTherapy) includes the patient-facing Connections App linked to a platform of provider care management functionality, predictive relapse risk indicators, and analytics—functionality that has been validated in clinical trials to reduce relapse by 30-50%. eRecovery enables continuous communication between patients, peers, and the care team to reduce isolation, promote trust and compassion, and reinforce skills needed for long-term recovery.