2020 has been an unprecedented year in so many ways.  Every day we see stories and news reports about COVID19 but that is not the only crisis we are facing.  The Opioid Epidemic continues and has only worsened since the Pandemic began.  Between March and May, 42 states and territories issued mandatory stay at home orders which led many Americans to begin work from home, virtual learning or unemployment.  For those deemed “essential workers”, work continued under uncertainty, fear and increased use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The effects of the Coronavirus vary from individual to individual but common experiences include feelings of social stress, isolation, fear, grief, concerns about job security, finances and health.  All these factors, plus countless others, have played a roll in what state officials predict will be a year of record overdose deaths in Connecticut.  The Chief Medical Examiner predicts the total number of overdoses in the state in 2020 to exceed 1300, over 100 more than last year.  Through October 2020, Connecticut reported a 13% increase in overdose deaths over the same period in 2019.  Fatal and nonfatal overdoses nationwide spiked in May 2020 with a 42% increase compared to May 2019.

It is impossible to know all of the correlations between COVID19 and substance use but some things we know for sure.  Alcohol and cannabis sales have both increased during the Pandemic as many individuals are reporting new or increased alcohol and drug use as a coping method.  Alcohol sales were deemed essential during the Pandemic as alcohol withdraw can be deadly.  So what do we know about why overdoses, especially fatal ones, have increased?  Isolation is a key factor.  Individuals who may have once used drugs with others were often isolated and using alone.  If an overdose occurs while someone is alone, there is no one to call for help or administer the lifesaving overdose reversal, Naoloxone.  Even if someone is present, the fear of going to the hospital during COVID19 may have prevented individuals from seeking help.  The existing stigma around SUD can impact willingness to seek treatment that could prevent a future overdose.

While organizations such as Liberation Programs were deemed essential and not forced to close, fear of leaving the house and being around others became a new barrier to treatment.  Fortunately, governmental mandates were changed to allow for an increase in take home medication such as Methadone which curbs opioid cravings.  Additionally, telehealth services were able to be implemented to provide treatment and support from an individual’s residence.  However, if someone has no access to a phone or internet, this was not an easy solution.  We have adapted and made changes to provide lifesaving treatment during the Pandemic, but there is much work left to be done.

Individuals with Substance Use Disorders (SUD) often have co-morbidities that can worsen symptoms in those who contract COVID19 as well as make individuals more susceptible to the virus.  Unfortunately, minorities have been disproportionately affected by COVID19 and Substance Use Disorders.  A study by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), found that African Americans with Substance Use Disorder and COVID19 had worse outcomes for hospitalizations and mortality.  Another study showed that Black patients had a larger portion of Opioid overdoses during the Pandemic.  This disparity in access and treatment must be addressed in order to save lives.

So what are we doing at Liberation Programs to address the Coronavirus Pandemic and Substance Misuse?  We have never closed our doors to Recoverees and are fully utilizing allowances for take home medications and telehealth – something we hope to incorporate even once the Pandemic is behind us.  Our Mobile Wellness Van continues to operate throughout Fairfield County 5 days per week providing life saving Narcan (Naloxone), syringe exchange, harm reduction supplies, education and referrals to those seeking support.  We have trained all staff as well as many in the community and local government in Narcan, including providing Narcan kits, so that we can get as many people as possible equipped to save lives.  We remain committed to meeting people where they are, saving lives and showing that Recovery is Possible.

It all began in March, COVID19’s first case in the USA creating a rollercoaster of emotions such as anxiety, fear, stress and uncertainty! Isolation was encouraged.

At a steady and rapid pace, the Coronavirus pandemic forced us into our homes to “Shelter in Place” while we were encouraged to do our part to “Flatten the Curve”. Cities and states started to shut down as cases increased hourly and daily. Closings took on a life of their own; schools, churches, restaurants, malls, and theatres all closed. However, liquor stores were considered essential and remained opened along with grocery stores. Alcohol sales in stores and online increased at an alarming rate. Uber Eats and Uber Drinks thrived! What happened to those already struggling with substance use disorders?

With a universal time out, ensuing State orders and CDC guidelines were followed; how would those experiencing anxiety, depressions and isolation and already on the cusp for potential alcohol/substance abuse fare? Did parents relax rules at home for alcohol use among teens in order to appease and bond with their child(ren) and/or over compensate for their uncertainty as to what to do? With the first summer in history where sports and other activities were not available, how were young people able to exert energy? While sheltering-in-place and seeing family members differently than they ever had, how does one cope? How does a parent, who feels unprepared to read to their child(ren), cook meals, provide homework help, and experience food insecurities cope with their day-to-day stress? How does an individual whose only escape from an abusive partner was to work outside the home now survive? What does one reach for to deal with life on its new terms; is it alcohol? Legal, accessible and stigma free alcohol potentially start to look good to those looking for relief, even better to those who relied on it already and the best of all to those who could not cope with the responsibilities of their life during the pandemic. Did they resort to drinking, increase alcohol intake or excessive drinking?

There was no longer any place to hide, no place to run to, no dropping kids at day-care, school, work, extra-curricular activities, baptism, birthdays, catechism, bar mitzvah; it all happened under one roof, at home. The positive aspect of COVID19 created room for bonding, worship, laughter, game night, meals, academic, games and family story time. The decision for the school year’s end was distant learning. Pre COVID19 we navigated through life moving quickly from one task to the next and seldom saw one another for long periods because school, work, worship and extra-curricular activities were all outside of the home, oftentimes with people other than the nuclear family. The New Norm continues!

Waiting to exhale!

The August/September back-to-school plan for our precious young people had us hold our breath. Of course, young people deserve socialization, kinship, friendship, and the school experience – they also deserve protection and safety. How does the young person view the back-to-school decision and what does the parent/caregiver believe about their decision to send or not to send their child(ren) to school? Does that decision determine a “Good Parent” or “Bad Parent”? Hybrid/Virtual/Home Schooling, what is it to be? For the child(ren) headed to school, is it a bus or car ride or a walk? When students see their friends, how do they greet one another? Are they properly wearing their mask; fully covering their nose and mouth? How do parents focus in work or at home with the anxiety of if their child(ren) is safe? COVID19 (The Pandemic) has shifted our focus…..we question are we doing all we can, is there anything else we can do? While we consistently experience stress, anxiety and uncertainty, what is our retreat? Is alcohol a companion; is it one glass of wine, one cocktail or a few? Has a drink become what we reach for to calm our worry? Let us take a minute to exhale and assess how we made it through the past six (6) months, what was the “it factor” that offered a sense of sanity, what became your vice? How do you make it through safely day-by-day? Let us continue to do the best we can daily and be kind to one another by offering support and Love.

“Don’t wait for the storm to pass, learn to dance in the rain” (author unknown)

By: Maggie Young, Chief Recovery Officer

Watch Liberation’s Chief Recovery Officer, Maggie Young, speak to the Connecticut Women’s Consortium on her journey through trauma and recovery.

Liberation Programs, Inc Announces Appointment of New Board Chair and Directors

(Norwalk, CT) – Liberation Programs, Inc (LPI) announced the start of its new Fiscal Year on July 1, 2020 with the appointment of a new Chair of the Board of Directors, two new Board Members.

Joining the Board are Debra Hertz, Maria B. Hancock, and Kirk S. Santos. Hertz will be reprising her former role as Board Chair for a one-year term. These appointments bring the total number of Board members to 14.

“We are excited to welcome Debra back to our Board in this leadership capacity and to have Maria and Kirk join this group. Their combined experiences and connections will be instrumental for an important year ahead as we continue adapting to the Coronavirus Pandemic, advocating for social justice, and celebrating our 50th Anniversary in 2021 all while providing unparalleled service for those who need us”, said President and CEO, John Hamilton. “We are all grateful to our departing Board Chair, Wayne Cafran, for his years of service as well as Roberta Cohen, Mort Lowenthal and Patricia Muldowney who served on our Board for over a decade collectively”.

Debra Hertz is returning to Chair the LPI Board having departed the Board in 2015. Hertz is a management consultant and founder of The Strategy Group, LLC with over 25 years advising nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. She holds a PhD. and Master of Social Work from Fordham University where she also teaches leadership courses in the Graduate School of Social Service. A Darien resident, Hertz is on the Board of Directors of Achievement First – Bridgeport.

Maria B. Hancock, Rye, NY, is an international executive and entrepreneur with extensive experience in investing and mentoring start-ups and advising on climate risk. Hancock has a PhD. in Theoretical Nuclear Physics from Johann Wolfgang Goethe Universität which she utilizes in product innovation, operational leadership, and risk assessment.

Kirk S. Santos, Mount Kisco, NY, is Chief Learning Officer at Pitney Bowes in Stamford. Previously, Santos held various positions at many Fortune 500 companies including PepsiCo, IBM, and Caesars Entertainment. Santos has extensive experience in Human Resource Strategy including retention, compensation, diversity, talent management, and succession planning. He holds a Master Strategic Management/Human Resources from Long Island University and is a member of the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, Society of Human Resource Management and Sigma Beta Delta.

The current Board of Directors for Liberation Programs:

Debra Hertz, Chair

John Bassler, Vice-Chair

Dennis Monson, Treasurer

Laura Beck, Secretary

Dr. Frank Appah, Jr

Steve Fogarty

Maria Hancock

Allison Milne

David M. Morosan

Kwame Moses

Sallyan Pelletier

Kirk Santos

Cynthia Shaw

Brigitte Van Den Houte