REGISTER HERALD: New app offers remote connection, resources for those struggling with substance use disorder

A free smartphone app is now available for state residents who are searching for connection while struggling with substance use disorder during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Through a partnership between West Virginia University and the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, anyone struggling with substance use can access CHESS Health’s Addiction Management Platform, which uses evidence-based technology to aid in intervention, treatment and recovery and beyond.

“The tool was implemented early in the pandemic to help comply with physical distancing requirements,” said Matthew Christiansen, director of the state Department of Health and Human Resources Office of Drug Control Policy. “Personal connection is such a huge part of long-term recovery. This app has really helped us fill a lot of those needs across the state.”

CHESS Health, a technology company based out of Rochester, New York, allows individuals to utilize their app, called “Connections: from CHESS Health,” either with an addiction treatment provider or as a West Virginia resident seeking recovery tools. Licenses have been purchased for 45 treatment organizations across West Virginia treating the largest number of patients, and unlimited access is available for any individual in the state who is not affiliated with a provider.

All individuals have access to discussion groups, calendar reminders, and tools to monitor their recovery progress. CHESS Video also allows individuals who are connected to a treatment provider to hold video sessions to maintain face-to-face contact, which is extremely important during this time of increased isolation. Individuals can also use the app with an alias, allowing for anonymity in the discussion groups.

“Having support is crucial for people wanting to gain or maintain recovery, but it can be difficult to share how you’re feeling, especially if you’re having thoughts of wanting to use,” said Bridget Crumley with CHESS Health. “Having an alias allows them to share more freely within the community. People really rally around each other and support one another.”

She said clients receive a weekly survey through the app, asking them to rate their involvement in different areas of their recovery, including risk factors. Through color-coded responses, both clients and treatment providers can determine if they are doing well or if there are areas for improvement. “Sometimes people don’t recognize how well they’re doing until they can see it,” Crumley said.

Dr. Garrett Moran, associate director of services and policy innovation with the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute at WVU, said the app has been well studied and proven to be effective in retaining recovery and engaging users.

“It contains the most widely used depression and anxiety screeners, which can also help,” Moran said. “Co-occurring mental health conditions in addiction is high, oftentimes at least 60 percent, but up to 90 percent.”

He hopes to see more folks in need enroll on the app, especially students, who may be feeling isolated with remote learning and physical distancing. Students at WVU are working to share materials with other colleges throughout the state to help make connections for recovery.

“Addiction has been called a disease of despair, and isolation really contributes to despair,” Moran said. The pandemic has only compounded issues many West Virginians are facing, such as loss of employment and financial struggles. “When people lose meaningful life roles, which is tough at any time, but with the added social isolation of Covid, they are at greater risk of starting to use substances again.”

He also points to substance use in social settings. “Before, if they overdosed, someone could have used naloxone or called for help. But because of Covid, they’re more likely to use by themselves; thus, no one will be available to help.”

Even after the pandemic, Christiansen said he hopes to continue utilization of the app for people who have developed supportive communities and for folks in the rural reaches of the state.

“In more urban areas, there are more developed treatment and recovery options than there are in rural areas due to population density,” he said. “This app is a great opportunity for those in rural areas to gain access to evidence-based modalities.”