The Price of a Year Alone: Opioid Abuse and COVID-19

More men experienced mental health crises and suicidal ideation during the pandemic lockdown than in previous years, according to a recent mental health report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Social isolation and environmental stress also led to a rise in substance abuse— a common coping mechanism for many depressed and anxious men.


Several factors can increase suicide risk for men, including a poor home environment during childhood, violence, and alcohol dependence. In recent years, the surge of the opioid crisis has placed more attention on prescription drug misuse as one culprit responsible for the rise in male suicidality. Tragically, some men suffering from chronic illness or opioid addiction may deliberately overdose or stop taking essential medications as a means of ending their life.


Men often experience and express mental illness differently than women, with symptoms such as anger and isolation occurring more frequently in depressed men than women. Opioid dependence also varies between men and women— from substance preference to the frequency of use. One study found that men were more likely to have used alcohol or heroin in the past month than women among their survey respondents. When researchers looked across a lifetime of drug use, they discovered that these men tended to abuse multiple substances and for a greater number of years than the women. Poor mental health and stigma surrounding mental illness for men may partially explain this prolonged substance dependence. More than half of the men who commit suicide do not have a psychiatric diagnosis— highlighting an overwhelming resistance towards receiving mental health assistance for many men.


Age also plays a critical role in vulnerability to opioid abuse and suicidality for men. Adult men tend to consume more alcohol and suffer from more medical issues than younger men. Both factors place adult men at greater risk for opioid abuse. It remains unclear what percentage of these deaths involve mental illness and were deliberate. While younger men report higher rates of anxiety, depression, and poor mental health days in the past month, they also had higher rates of health insurance. Lack of health care utilization and stigma surrounding mental illness prevents many men from recognizing their symptoms and seeking help. These barriers make it difficult to determine if younger men suffer from mental health challenges more often or report their symptoms more willingly than older men.


The onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 exacerbated the opioid crisis, in what the American Medical Association termed a “deadly drug overdose epidemic.” Every state across America reported sustained increases in opioid overdose during this time. The CDC recently illustrated the impact of the coronavirus on opioid overdose deaths in a report out of Cook County, Illinois. Weekly death tolls from opioid overdose nearly doubled during the stay-at-home order and promptly declined after the order was lifted. The CDC attributes the increased death toll in part to interruptions in substance abuse treatment and recovery services, along with loss of informal social support during the lockdown.


However, research suggests that several other factors are also responsible for the rise in opioid deaths. Patients suffering from substance abuse often experience discrimination in hospitals and stigma towards addiction from medical professionals. These negative experiences create a barrier between patients and the healthcare services they need, potentially hindering them from seeking help for their addiction. Substance abuse patients also often fail to recognize early warning signs of a potential overdose and may not reach out in enough time for successful medical intervention. Further, the pandemic lockdown kept patients from accessing necessary treatment resources, all while they are experiencing abnormal environmental stress. Coupled together, these factors increase the likelihood for worsening substance use and relapse — pushing some patients deeper into addiction.


Mental health challenges abounded during the stay-at-home order, worsening the chances of substance abuse for many people. The societal inequities like racism, poverty, and homelessness that place individuals at greater risk for infection and mental illness also put them at greater risk for addiction. As the world seeks to recover in the aftermath of the pandemic, special consideration towards those suffering from substance use disorder and mental illness is needed.

Caleigh Findley

View posts by Caleigh Findley
Caleigh Findley is a fourth-year doctoral student in pharmacology and neuroscience and a regular contributor to Talking About Men's Health and Healthy Men, Inc. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in health communications

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