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Resources still available for people suffering from addiction

Pandemic has been a challenge for many in recovery programs

For 31 years, September has been designated National Recovery Month in the United States. The month is meant to celebrate the gains made by those living in recovery. It is also meant to educate Americans about addiction, treatment and mental health services that can enable those with mental and substance use disorders to live healthy and rewarding lives, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional stressors to the general population, and those stressors can be another hindrance for those battling addiction or trying to maintain recovery, according to Dr. Tyler Oesterle, an addiction specialist and psychiatrist who is the medical director for Fountain Centers of Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. Oesterle, who also sees patients in Rochester through Mayo Clinic’s intensive addiction program, said treatments have been much more difficult amid the pandemic.

Tyler Oesterle

As much of substance addiction treatment revolves around group therapy and other group activities, Oesterle said they have been transferring as much of the group aspect to virtual platforms as possible. It presents its own challenges, as he said there are patients who have struggled with communicating virtually, and that it can be harder for both professionals and others in the groups to pick up on nonverbal indicators of how someone is doing through a video call.

“Some find it difficult to connect that way,” Oesterle said.

Others in the groups have worked through the initial change and have stuck with it to continue treatment, he said. He has also heard of local Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings having some success with going virtual.

“I think time will tell, as we track data, how things have gone,” Oesterle said.

There are some face-to-face groups in Rochester, and those locally who don’t have access to the internet or the technology for video calls can work with Fountain Centers to come in and use its resources. Initial assessments are still done in person as well.

While Fountain Centers has a residential program for those needing it, it had to be put on pause for a few weeks at the start of the pandemic to sort out what to do, Oesterle said. Now the residential programs have been restructured. Instead of patients sharing rooms, now each person has their own room. They are screened for COVID-19 before moving into the facility, and there are safety checks done to take precautions against the coronavirus being transmitted. Oesterle likened the measures to residents being in a kind of bubble. No community activities, such as having meetings in parks, are going on for the time being, either.

Right now Fountain Centers only has a men’s residential program. Oesterle said the center was working on restarting the women’s residential program prior to the pandemic, but that has been put on hold for the time being due to the uncertainty in planning brought on by COVID-19.

Oesterle said the pandemic has caused stress for just about everyone, so it’s no surprise that it puts more pressure on those in recovery. Losing a job, having to stay home more, financial instability and especially increased social isolation can drive more people to relapse. The isolation is the most difficult aspect, he said, as it goes against so much of the recovery program recommendations. Those working toward recovery are encouraged to connect with others, to go to meetings and to talk about what they’re going through together, and a lot of the health recommendations surrounding the pandemic advise almost the exact opposite, Oesterle said. He stressed it’s important to work through the additional challenges the pandemic has presented.

“Reach out to folks. Don’t let it be an excuse,” he said. “Don’t let recommendations to isolate be a reason.”

He advised those working toward and in recovery to get together — with masks and socially distant — such as in a park or someone’s yard to talk and work through recovery together.

“Don’t ever let something like social distancing get in the way of being healthy,” Oesterle said. “Stay connected and keep going.”

He said those working through addiction need to reach out for the services available to them, keep in touch with their physicians and health care providers, and be open and honest with their loved ones about what they’re going through to find more support.

“The only thing that can make the stress worse is a relapse, going back to using,” Oesterle said. “I think it’s important for people to be aware that programs are still operating. There’s still help out there and a lot of support.”

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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