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Bethany Walmsley is executive director for the Returning Veterans Project. Mark O'Brien is with RALI and an expert on criminal justice and addiction.

Mark O'BrienBethany WalmsleyThe COVID-19 pandemic that began in early 2020, leading to stay-at-home orders, quarantines, and school and business closures has resulted in more than 167,000 infections and nearly 2,500 deaths in Oregon. We all want to get back to normal, but as we look to the future, we must also recommit to the fight against the opioid crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic as well as support those experiencing heightened mental health issues.

Mental health and substance misuse often go hand-in-hand. Stress, anxiety, and isolation are a byproduct of the COVID-19 response. This, combined with new and old barriers to treatment create a perfect storm for those experiencing mental health issues and battling substance use disorders. Unfortunately, people with SUD are also more susceptible to COVID-19 hospitalization and death.

The Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative of Oregon (or RALI) and Returning Veterans Project have continued our efforts to address these challenges throughout the pandemic. Now, we must all turn our attention back to support those struggling with SUD and mental health issues.

One of the more frightening aspects of these overlapping health crises, according to the National Institutes of Health, is that addiction appears to make people more susceptible to getting COVID-19 and more likely to experience the worst health outcomes associated with it — hospitalization and death. Additionally, for more complex reasons, the pandemic appears to be contributing to higher overdose death rates.

It has become more difficult for many people to engage with addiction treatment that may have been keeping them in recovery or would have helped them find recovery resources if there were no pandemic. In the spring of 2019, federal regulators took steps to increase access to telehealth for addiction counseling and medication prescribing. They made it easier for patients to keep opioid use disorder medications at home. Yet as many as 20 percent of patients do not have a cell phone or internet access and telemedicine really only benefits patients if they have these tools.

At Returning Veterans Project, we support the healing and health of our veterans and military communities by connecting post-9/11 veterans, service members, and their military families with free, confidential mental and physical health services. We've worked with RALI on a series of education trainings about addiction and SUDs, especially as it relates to veteran and military communities and mental health. With critical support from community partners like RALI, we offer these trainings at no cost to bolster community awareness with regard to SUD identification, diagnosis and treatment options.

Thinking about the implications of mental health, drug overdoses and addiction can be overwhelming, but there are things we can all do to make our families and communities safer. Learn about the risks of opioids and signs that someone in your family might be struggling with substance use. Reach out to people in your family, social circle, or community who may be struggling with loneliness, isolation, or anxiety during these challenging times.

As vaccinations continue to ramp up, it feels like the possibility that life will get back to normal is getting closer. Now it's time to recommit to the fight against addiction and support those struggling with mental health challenges to build a healthier and more vibrant society for everyone.

Bethany Walmsley is executive director for the Returning Veterans Project and has been leading nonprofits for the past 10 years. Visit returningveterans.org/ to learn more. Mark O'Brien is with RALI and an expert on criminal justice and addiction, with more than a decade of experience leading national coalitions and local collaborations. Visit www.rali-or.org/ to learn more.


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