U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley is not engaging in idle speculation when he identifies COVID-19 as a possible contributor to a worsening of substance abuse and mental health problems.
Hawley, R-Missouri, wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Director Alex Azar calling on the agency to deploy more than $425 million to boost mental health and substance abuse treatment during the pandemic.
Hawley’s concern is a valid one: That the coronavirus response brings an increased risk of substance abuse and struggles with mental illness.
“I am concerned that increases in social isolation, anxiety and despair due to the pandemic may be contributing to surges in drug addiction,” he wrote. “New data suggests that untreated substance abuse is increasing in kind. For those seeking care for drug addiction, reports indicate that treatment facilities are under severe strain due to pandemic-related interruptions.”
Closer to home, these are not abstract, “what-if” concerns. In Buchanan County, overdose deaths for the first eight months of 2020 already exceed all of 2019. Physicians believe some of this increase is connected to depression, economic hardships and the loss of social engagement. All of those issues have a link to the coronavirus shutdowns.
On a national level, the American Medical Association raised concerns about increases in opioid-related mortality in 40 states. This follows encouraging news in 2019 that these kinds of deaths were finally beginning to decline.
Hawley, in the letter to the HHS director, also notes the pandemic’s impact on mental health disorders. He references increased reports of depression in teenagers and young adults, as well as surveys showing that 53% of U.S. adults have reported stress and worry brought about by the pandemic and the associated feelings of isolation.
Just this week, the News-Press spoke at length with one St. Joseph man who feels like a “prisoner in his own house.” Before you say he should just deal with it and get out there, consider that this man suffers from medical conditions that put him at risk of complications if he tests positive for the coronavirus.
This isn’t about the raging public debate over masks, shutdowns or how much the government should intervene to keep people safe while also allowing freedom of choice with commerce and public gatherings.
It’s about making sure that federal resources are available to ensure that Americans are able to deal with this bewildering and disorienting crisis without the collateral damage of mental health and substance abuse complications.
In this regard, Hawley provides a voice of reason that’s sometimes lacking in the debate over the coronavirus.