Substance abuse in the Mid-South grows amid pandemic, but there is help

Memphis, Tenn. — Dr. Karen Derefinko, an assistant professor of preventative medicine at UTHSC, says the pandemic is having an impact on those who struggle with substance abuse.

“You’re using more or more often than you used to just to cope with the stress of the pandemic or losing a job or financial strain,” Dr. Derefinko said.

Dr. Derefinko said women are now more likely to use marijuana and alcohol during the pandemic. She also said people who wouldn’t normally turn to substances are starting to do so.

She says Shelby County was already seeing a 15 percent increase in overdoses just before the pandemic hit.

“We know for a fact that number is higher and so you can imagine,” she said. “In 2018 it was bad. In 2019 it was worse and I can imagine in 2020 it’s off the charts in terms of people overdosing.”

Stacy Dodd, the area vice president for Vertava Health, understands this battle. He’s coming up on 21 years of recovery.

“They’re continuing to grow,” Dodd said. “It’s not getting better. It’s actually getting worse. Depression, especially the job loss, financial issues, all these things are leading to an increased need for our services.”

Dodd was in Southaven Saturday for the release of his book chronicling his journey to recovery.

“The stress of people not being able to work,’ he said. “Not being able to attend their recovery groups, their support groups, church, all these things have led to an intense extra amount of stress which has led to more drug use, overdoses, and even overdose deaths.”

In adjusting to the times, Dodd said Vertava offers 24/7 virtual care.

Dr. Derefinko said there hasn’t been an increase in treatment seeking during the pandemic but the hope is that this changes long term.

She said this is crucial in a time when the intersection of mental health and substance abuse has become more intense.

“In Shelby County that is the case for many folks who are living beyond or below the poverty line,” she said. “That is very particular to Shelby County. We have a lot of folks who are struggling to make it right now.”