KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City metro addiction-recovery experts worry the nation is on the verge of a substance-abuse crisis.
A study published in December 2020 showed 60% of Americans admitted to increased drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts said loneliness, isolation and the stress of the pandemic likely played a large role.
And as life begins to return to normal, experts in the substance abuse industry are bracing for an influx of calls for help.
At First Call Kansas City, an addiction treatment center, counselors are spending longer periods of time on calls to its 24-hour crisis hotline.
President and CEO Emily Hage said calls typically last 15 minutes but have recently started lasting 30 and 45 minutes.
"We’ve had our entire staff cross-trained in screening for suicidality because we’re just noticing people are really in crisis, much more mental health crisis," Hage said.
While the severity of the calls has increased, the volume of calls has not. Hage said this leads experts to believe many people are coping with substance abuse at home where it is easy to hide it.
"I really anticipate once people are back in their workplace, maybe kids are all back in school, out of their homes with a little bit more accountability from other people in their lives, we are going to see a drastic jump in demand for our services," Hage said.
Of the people surveyed in the study, the group with the biggest increase in drinking was women with children at home.
Kansas City-area attorney Hugh O'Donnell knows first-hand the challenges of substance abuse. He's been sober for more than 30 years and has spent time volunteering with First Call and serving on the Board of Directors, including a few years as president.
O'Donnell wants to end the stigma around substance abuse, which he said is the reason why many people do not reach out for help.
"People with drug and alcohol problems are not just the people who have to live under the bridge," O'Donnell said. "In fact, most of the time it is not. A great deal of the time it’s the doctor. It’s the lawyer."
O'Donnell said seeking help when drugs and alcohol were taking over his life was the best decision he could have made.
"That 12-step program not only saved my life, but it made my life something that I never could’ve imagined," O'Donnell said.
O'Donnell sympathizes with people working to recover from substance abuse during a time when isolation and loneliness are so prevalent.
"What helped me be successful in recovery was that one-on-one contact with another human being," he said, "and that intangible thing that’s there when you and I are sitting here talking that’s not going to be the same when we’re talking on Zoom."
While the pandemic has created challenges for people in that respect, O'Donnell said it also has brought about new options for people to receive help in ways they might not have before, such as virtual meetings, which likely will stick around beyond the pandemic.
"Some people are going to choose to do meetings part of the way by Zoom and part of the way in person," O'Donnell said.
First Call counselors, according to Hage, have been keeping a close eye on the trends over the past year and are standing ready to answer the phones when the calls come in.
"We know that there’s a workforce of people who are ready and waiting to help, just asking is the hardest part," Hage said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, you can fall First Call's 24-hour hotline at 816-361-5900.