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With stay-at-home orders across the U.S., meetings and counseling sessions for those who struggle with addiction issues are now taking place online during the coronavirus pandemic. These types of resources are more needed than ever, according to addiction groups, mental health counselors and individuals who struggle with substance abuse issues.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I had been in this situation when we didn’t have access to virtual meetings,” said a 26-year-old woman from Brooklyn, New York, who participates in Alcoholics Anonymous. When she spoke with CNBC, she was 62 days sober and planning to attend 90 meetings in her first 90 days of sobriety.

She said a recent meeting she attended through the video conferencing platform Zoom had over 1,000 people in it. In her experience, virtual meetings are very similar to the in-person ones she’s gone to in New York City: a speaker talks for 10 to 20 minutes and then people share their experiences if they’re willing. Zoom has a “raise hand” feature that allows people to indicate if they want to speak, though not everyone is able to in large groups. Donations are made through the mobile payment app Venmo rather than a collection basket.

“It’s almost too easy because I can take a meeting sitting in my bed,” the woman said.

She finds out about virtual meetings through Google Docs circulated among members. The meetings help her de-stress and provide time for self-reflection as she remains in her apartment during New York’s statewide stay-at-home order. She said that they’ve also been essential in helping her stay sober.

“I used to always drink before I worked from home,” she said. “So now that I’m working from home all the time, it’s trying to break that habit.”

Online meetings have also been vital for the Narcotics Anonymous community, according to Bob Shott, a team assistant at NA World Services. The group now uses platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts to organize large virtual gatherings.

“Interaction with the group is vital,” Shott said. “We have a saying that the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel.”

NA has also been using Facebook to signal meeting times. Quarantined NA – Southern California, a Facebook group that includes meeting times and Zoom video links, has almost 9,100 members as of Monday.

Shott said that most groups are now meeting online because of social distancing requirements, but he did attend a 10-person meeting last week that included hand sanitizer at the door.

“Everybody sat apart. We don’t circle up, we don’t hug, you know, we’re being smart,” Shott said.

As an NA sponsor, he said he’s also seen an increase in requests for sobriety support.

“My phone’s ringing off the hook,” Shott said.

‘Isolated and touch-deprived’

The coronavirus pandemic can be a particularly tough time for those who have substance abuse disorders, according to Andrea St. Clair, a certified chemical dependency counselor and client care coordinator at A Positive Alternative. The outpatient treatment center is located in Seattle, another city hard-hit by the coronavirus.

“We’re checking in with people more frequently,” St. Clair said. “We know from the research that stress is the number one trigger to relapse.”

She said that working from home can be stressful for people as the usual boundaries between their work and personal lives begin to blur. They may also be overwhelmed from having to care for children while balancing their work, and may feel disconnected from others.

“We’re even more isolated and touch-deprived because at least people used to be able to shake hands or get a hug or you know, have some kind of contact,” St. Clair said.

A Positive Alternative caters to mature professionals, usually 35 and older, who struggle with addiction issues, and offers therapy in small groups of eight, according to St. Clair. Since mid-March, the treatment center has started using video conferencing for some group meetings through Zoom for Healthcare, which is compliant with the HIPPA health-care privacy guidelines.

“We are still seeing some people individually and or in a very small group that might also be combined with Zoom,” St. Clair said.

Reading body language

While there have been technical difficulties and counselors find it more challenging to read people’s body language, telehealth has been effective in helping clients, according to St. Clair.

“These services, even though they may not be 100% ideal, are just so essential,” she said.

Sound, a provider of mental health services and outpatient addiction treatment in King County, Washington, has seen a 90% to 100% increase in the number of people reaching out for help since the COVID-19 outbreak began, according to Steve McLean, a Sound spokesperson. Sound serves 26,000 clients a year, many of them low-income, and has 17 locations.

The group’s work became easier when it could help Medicare and Medicaid clients through telemedicine, according to David Newman, a clinician and program manager at Sound. The Trump administration expanded these programs in mid-March to include telehealth at no extra cost to those enrolled.

Sound has now implemented HIPPA-compliant video conferencing, but often relies on phone calls to provide help.

“While we have Skype for Business, many of our clients are living in tents,” Newman said. “They may be sleeping on somebody’s couch. They may not have access to the technology we do. It’s much more likely that they’ll have phone communication.”

In response to the coronavirus, Sound has launched an “urgent care model” where they provide 24/7 access for clients, usually by telephone, according to McLean. Newman said he’s had to change his therapy methods when listening to clients on the phone.

“I have to really tune into intonations, how people are saying things,” Newman said. “I’ve come to realize that I have been very reliant on watching another person.”

With the uncertainty that lies ahead concerning the coronavirus and its impact, Newman believes that more individuals will come forward seeking mental health services and addiction treatment through telemedicine.

“This is just the beginning of a wave of people asking for help,” he said.

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