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My Turn, Vernon Walters Jr.: United Way giving helps as substance abuse issues grow

The COVID-19 pandemic has left an indelible imprint on our community. From sheltering in place to wearing masks to schooling at home … the list is almost endless.

Everyone has been impacted but those with substance abuse problems are more vulnerable than others. Often overshadowed by all the dire news created by COVID-19 the past six months has been a dramatic rise in substance abuse nationwide.

The statistics are startling. The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program showed an 18% increase of overdoses nationally in March. The number increased to 29%  in April and 42% in May.

In late August, the American Medical Association reported that “more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality.”

In some areas the increases have been frightening. For example, King County, Washington, recorded a 133% increase in fentanyl overdose deaths from April through June of this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released statistics in August that showed 40% of adults in the United States struggled with mental health or substance use in June during the pandemic.

North Carolina has seen a 15% increase in emergency room visits for substance abuse and binge drinking this year.

The numbers have steadily increased in Rowan County where there have been 23 opioid overdose emergency room visits since January. That included 13 in March as COVID began to shut down businesses and layoffs began.

In 2019 there were over 1,100 emergency responses due to mental health, suicide and substance abuse in Rowan County and that number has grown in 2020 during the pandemic.

At Nazareth Child & Family Connection we offer Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient Therapy for those who are struggling to get their lives turned around. Since the onset of the pandemic earlier this year, the demand for this program has grown greatly.

We have seen a 38% increase in the number of Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient clients and 282 intake appointments overall in our outpatient offices. With each intake a treatment plan is developed based on the client’s immediate needs and long-term goals.

I am thankful every day that we were awarded a $100,000 grant for our substance abuse program this year under the Rowan County United Way’s new community impact program. Without it, we would have struggled mightily helping these folks who desperately want hope and help.

Before COVID, those enrolled in the Substance Abuse Intensive Outpatient program would have visited our Mahaley Avenue office in Salisbury to meet with counselors. But with COVID and social distancing, that all had to change. And because of funding by the Rowan County United Way we were able to pivot quickly to using telehealth and virtual appointments without creating a delay or lapse in treatment for those in need. The telehealth program also allowed our counselors and clinicians to work from home, which obviously helped protect them, but more importantly protected our clients not only from COVID, but also from relapse.

During the second quarter of this year, from April through June, 95 percent of our services were virtual, guaranteeing continued support for our clients when they needed it the most.

The increase in substance abuse over the past few months parallels the general increase in depression, fear, and anxiety fueled by job losses and financial struggles. Social isolation and stress can increase susceptibility to substance abuse, addiction, and relapse. Social distancing and shutdowns have created roadblocks for those seeking help and treatment.

With the United Way funding, we have been able to provide free treatment or treatment on a sliding fee scale so clients’ stress level isn’t increased because of financial problems.

Again, because of the Rowan County United Way, Nazareth Child & Family Connection has the ability to help those who need help … help them learn how to manage their situations and move away from abuse and addiction.

Now more than ever, your support ensures we build a healthy, thriving and equitable community. As a community change agent, you and your gift to Rowan County United Way will improve individuals’ and families’ lives by making a positive impact in our community.

Vernon Walters has been the president and CEO of Nazareth Child & Family Connection for more than two decades.

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