Irish singer Sinead O’ Connor recently tweeted that 2020 has been the culmination of “a very traumatic six years” and that she is postponing her 2021 tours to enter a yearlong treatment program for addiction. She admitted that she had grown addicted to “a drug other than weed” after losing someone dear to her this year, and she’s far from alone: Researchers have found a growing confluence of twin pandemics — COVID-19 and addictions — with the former feeding the latter. Today’s Daily Dose dives into that crisis, looks at addictions beyond narcotics, and introduces you to innovative solutions and the change-makers behind them.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter
1. Drugs Get Deadlier
Even before COVID-19 hit, America was battling its deadliest drug overdose crisis ever, one that killed 71,000 people in 2019. But the pandemic appears set to make things a lot worse. Early data suggests the death toll this year could be higher, owing to a surge in the spread of illicit drugs nationwide at a time when people are stressed and lonely. Recovery programs, meanwhile, have been disrupted by lockdowns and other restrictions, exacerbating the problem. Canada, for example, is seeing a reversal of its gains against opioid addiction, and deaths could hit record highs.
2. Fake and Fatal
On the surface, it might seem counterintuitive. Surely the sealing of borders because of the pandemic should have stopped the flow of illegal narcotics, right? Yes — and no. Indeed, COVID-19 has disrupted the narcotics supply chain. In Afghanistan, the world’s largest heroin producer, a shortage of agricultural workers meant reduced production levels. Closed borders have also made it harder for smugglers to ferry drugs such as methamphetamines. But all of that has only triggered a new crisis: Local suppliers are increasingly adulterating narcotics with synthetic substances like fentanyl, which often makes them more potent. This is leading to more fentanyl overdoses.
3. Getting Around Restrictions
The narcotics industry is nothing if not innovative. With borders closed, financial transactions have moved online while smugglers are using postal services for the physical exchange of drugs. Stunningly, the United Nations has found that methamphetamine production continues to soar in Asia, keeping prices low and consumption high.
4. Dangerous Stimulants
But it isn’t only mainstream drugs or their adulterated versions that are the problem. In Europe, researchers have found that users are turning to other stimulants, such as cognitive enhancers — drugs usually prescribed to improve learning outcomes — as substitutes to overcome short-term disruptions in the supply of narcotics.
Like in other parts of the world, Australia has witnessed widespread use of methamphetamine — also known as ice — during the pandemic. But it is medical marijuana that has seen the greatest surge in demand since Australia adopted telehealth practices early in the pandemic, with doctors handing out prescriptions remotely. While some of that might be to manage pain, the spike in self-reported usage of weed suggests Australians are also increasingly turning to it as a substitute for other substances.
6. The Killer in the Shadows
Fueled by fake news and bootleg booze, a second trail of death is sweeping the world. At least 300 people died in Iran in March after consuming methanol — a solvent — because they believed unscientific suggestions that alcohol protects the body from COVID-19 or even cures the infection. In Turkey, 30 people died and 20 were hospitalized after consuming pure ethanol. Meanwhile in India, a national lockdown to enforce social distancing shut down liquor stores and, in turn, pushed addicts toward spurious bootleg drinks, often with fatal consequences.
It’s more potent than ever before. Researchers at the University of Bath have found that the strength of cannabis resins — better known as hash — has risen by 25 percent over the past 50 years. Hash has traditionally been seen as a safer form of cannabis, but the new findings suggest that might be changing — particularly with sales skyrocketing during the pandemic.
Khat, a leafy shrub used to induce excitement and euphoria, is the most popular intoxicant in the Horn of Africa — 90 percent of adults in Somaliland are believed to consume it. The pandemic has disrupted khat’s supply chain in East Africa, and that has hurt the livelihoods of khat’s sellers, mostly women. But this cloud has a silver lining: Experts are hoping this disruption makes male khat addicts turn over a new leaf and use what they would otherwise spend on the intoxicant to support their children’s education.
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The data is mixed. Previous research has suggested that excessive use of smartphones by children is “problematic.” But new findings by scientists from the University of California, Irvine, suggest smartphone use might actually be good for the mental health of teenagers. Scientists now believe youngsters find the strength to cope with emotional upheavals if they can express their feelings to their friends via messaging services or texts. Perhaps that’s why a study in the United States concludes people aren’t addicted to mobile technology but, in fact, to social interactions. In itself, that’s not a bad thing.
It’s a rousing time for the porn industry. The world’s largest pornography website, Pornhub, has reported a spike in traffic. For instance, when it made its premium content free for 30 days for people who agree to stay home and wash their hands frequently, the site saw an 18 percent jump in users. In many regions, Pornhub maintained, the increase in views started immediately after social distancing measures were put in place. But can porn be harmful? Research has shown a correlation between sexually violent porn and attitudes supporting violence against women.
A study by one of India’s top mental health research institutions has found that there has been a 30 percent uptick in gaming addiction among Indians between the ages of 16 and 20 during the pandemic. And it’s not just India. One in 30 people around the world are so addicted to video games that they are suffering from a clinical disorder. Yet there’s a potential upside to video games too: Oxford University researchers have found that people who play video games frequently have a better sense of “well-being.” Games such as Sea of Solitude specifically target mental health. And researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that video games can help veterans tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.
Our addiction to our phones or streaming services isn’t new. The pandemic — which has forced us to to work, play and study, all on our screens — has made it worse. That’s great news for the tech industry, which has seen a sharp uptick in its already gigantic profits. But it’s a cause for concern for the rest of us. According to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, binge-watching can lead to poor sleep quality, increased fatigue and a rise in insomnia symptoms.
5. Exercise Addiction
Exercising is great — as long as you don’t overdo it. With working from home making schedules more flexible for many, researchers are flagging worries that excessive exercise amid the pandemic could spark its own problems. In fact, exercise addiction syndrome — it is not a formal clinical diagnosis and is not listed as a disorder in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — is a behavioral condition that often stems from other psychiatric disorders.
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Treat chemical dependency as you would chronic medical conditions such diabetes, hypertension or asthma. They all have similar relapse rates and deserve similarly focused long-term treatments. One way to fight the temptation to succumb to addictions? Contingency management is an effective tool. It involves motivational and other tangible incentives to encourage abstinence from the drug. It’s an underused strategy because of moral concerns (is it basically bribing someone to stay clean?). But several clinical trials have found it works.
2. A Pill a Day
What if it could stop you from binge-drinking? Named after scientist David Sinclair, the Sinclair Method involves taking naltrexone at least one hour before drinking. It cuts your appetite for heavy drinking and is an approach that’s been approved by the FDA.
It’s not sexy, but it’s effective in the fight against America’s opioid crisis. Researchers are tailoring questionnaires and screenings originally meant for tracing other addictions, such as alcoholism, to help detect opioid abuse early. About half a dozen of these screening mechanisms are becoming standard.
Angmi, a small startup based in Guangzhou, China, wants to guilt you into kicking the butt. How? Through Tosee (pronounced toe-SEE), a smart cigarette holder that keeps track of the number of cigarettes that you smoke and the amount of poison you’re inhaling.
The concept was all the rage at Davos this year. A company backed by billionaire Peter Thiel is testing a hallucinogenic drug that it claims has the potential to treat opioid addiction. It uses an extract from the root of an African shrub. The drug is undergoing clinical trials at the moment.
Years ago, Tess Sweet struggled to cope with the worst phase of her life. Suicidal, addicted to heroin, and consumed by shame and rage following a sexual assault, she wanted to disappear. But life had other plans for her. Now, she is a filmmaker who is using her experiences with addiction and mental illness to shift the conversation about recovery and help other addicts by turning them into actors. Her show, Cleaner Daze, brings an authenticity to the topic that other works can’t manufacture.
A decade ago, the United Nations branded Guinea-Bissau as Africa’s first narco-state. Domingos Té, a 53-year-old rehab center founder and priest, is at the forefront of his country’s fight against the crisis — with a Bible and a guitar. He believes that people’s faith will help them break with their addiction. If successful, his model could hold valuable lessons for other poor, conservative societies.
The truest recovery from an addiction is through human connections. That’s the philosophy behind Peers Enjoying a Sober Education (P.E.A.S.E.) Academy, one among a growing set of recovery schools that serve as bridges that youth emerging from substance abuse can turn to before they reenter mainstream education. Research has found that it works.
The dangerous ones, that is. Scientists have devised a technique that can help delete memories — remember Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? — associated with certain addictions, from meth to cocaine. They’ve tried it on cocaine-addicted rats, which then stayed sober. Life does mimic the movies.