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Addictions and substance abuse have increased throughout the United States. With the recent surplus in the availability of these substances, they have become more accessible to the public. Orange County health experts have revealed that these practices contribute to individuals’ poor mental health.


Editor’s Note: This story is part of a series on Orange County’s mental health. All stories are produced by students in a digital journalism course at Chapman University. This story, the first in the series, was written by Tiffany Yoo and edited by Alya Hijazi. Click here to see the full series. To inquire or write us about our Voice of OC Youth Media program or this piece of work, send an email to squick@voiceofoc.org.


COVID-19

A recent report published by the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that around 13.3% of adults have been confirmed for using substances as a way to manage their stress during the coronavirus pandemic.

The study also found that job loss — which has happened at record-breaking rates during the pandemic in OC and the nation — can often lead to increased depression, anxiety, distress and low self-esteem which can easily lead to more substance abuse and suicide.

“It is likely that mental health issues and substance use disorders among people with these conditions will be exacerbated,” as a result of these unprecedented times, states the article.

Coronavirus has also been proven to be damaging to the lungs. In a post published by Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, she states that there is a possibility that individuals who suffer from substance abuse disorders will be affected tremendously.

Volkow noted that along with those who smoke and vape, individuals who have opioid and methamphetamine related diseases will be at higher risk. 

The Kaiser Family Foundation’s report claims that, “The pandemic is likely to have both long- and short-term implications for mental health and substance use, particularly for groups likely at risk of new or exacerbated mental health struggles. The pandemic spotlights both existing and new barriers to accessing mental health and substance use disorder services.”

Factors to Addiction

“Mental health conditions at times can increase risk factors for developing a substance use disorder,” said Annette Mugrditchian, the director of operations at the Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA).

Mugrditchian believes that individuals who suffer from mental illnesses turn to alcohol and drugs as a form of “self-medication.”

There is a fine line between over-abusing drugs, and using it for medical purposes only, she says. There are drugs that are proven to be beneficial when used sparingly. However, continuous habits can eventually manipulate the brain to normalize an individual’s dependence on the substance’s rewarding factors, Mugrditchian said.  

“Men are more likely to use or abuse substances, and the consequences of use for men are typically more serious,” Mugrditchian adds. This includes overdose and hospitalization. “Women are equally as likely to develop a substance use disorder as men.”

Statistics have shown that those who can be categorized in the age group ranging from 13 to 20 are the ones who are most likely to have substance-abusing disorders. Those who are in their mid-thirties tend to over-abuse prescribed medicines according to Mugriditchian.

According to the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center, in 2019 alone there were around 824 mental health discharges. From January to July 2020, discharges totaled 415. During that time range, the average length of stay increased by 0.9 days. 

Children’s Hospital of Orange County also revealed that the statistic was based off current mental health trends, which includes:

  • An increase in the utilization of drugs that leads to more psychotic episodes
  • Suicide attempts
  • An increase in social isolation
  • An increase in depression with a decrease in resources to help

Alcohol

According to the Alcohol and Other Drug Use Prevalence: 2012 Survey of Orange County Adults report, the race and genders of the adults in Orange County reflected their use of alcohol. 

OCHCA reports that, “Socio-demographic status, as measured by level of education and income, also showed a consistent relationship to alcohol use prevalence, with the more affluent and educated adults reporting higher levels of use than those of lower income and educational status.”

It is more common for men to consume alcohol than women, the report states. White individuals were identified to have the highest alcohol intake, and “alcohol use prevalence generally increased with age and peaked in the 45 to 64 year age range.”

Death by alcohol also increased by 41% between 2000 and 2012 according to the Drug & Alcohol Morbidity & Mortality In Orange County report.

Alcohol is labelled as a depressant, says The Drinkaware Trust, an alcohol education charity, and the substance has the ability to affect the brain’s chemical balance, and an individual’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. It could also potentially affect one’s long-term mental health. 

The article states that the main cause of it came down to neurotransmitters: chemicals that assist the transmission of signals from one nerve to another.  

Abusing alcohol can oftentimes lead to psychosis, a type of mental illness that creates hallucinations, the article states. This illness can be caused by intoxication and withdrawal, and can potentially occur when alcoholic individuals abruptly stop drinking.

“Alcohol can cause people to lose their inhibitions and behave impulsively, so it can lead to actions they might not otherwise have taken – including self-harm and even suicide,” the report says. There is a strong association between overdrinking and suicidal intentions. 

Prescription and Illicit Drugs

Addressing the Opioid Crisis in Orange County, CA report states that, “The rate of opioid-related emergency department (ED) visits has increased 141% since 2005 and there were 7,457 opioid overdose/abuse cases treated in the ED between 2011 and 2015.”

The Orange County Sheriff-Coroner also reported that around seven out of every 10 overdose deaths were connected to the use of opioids.

“One trend we have seen in the ‘wealthier’ areas of OC is an increase in prescription opioid abuse,” Mugrditchian said. She described that the number of individuals who have tried finding remedies for opioids have “doubled since 2015.”

However, methamphetamine and alcohol hold their positions as the two most frequently used substances. Addiction to substances increases risk factors related to their mental health. 

The 2020 Orange County Community Indicators report states that in 2009, OC’s emergency department had an increase in hospitalization by 24%, as a result of the 82% increase of opioid abusers.

“Substance use disorders occur with other mental illnesses approximately 50% of the time,” said Mugrditchian. This can make an individual’s symptoms more deficient, which would make the diagnosing and treatment of mental health conditions a lot more difficult.

Alcohol and Other Drug Use Prevalence: 2012 Survey of Orange County Adults revealed that marijuana was the most commonly used drug.

“Drug overdose deaths increased 61% [between 2000 and 2012],” and more than half of the deaths were resulted from the incidental abuse of prescribed drugs, according to the Drug & Alcohol Morbidity & Mortality In Orange County report.

Recovery

With the right steps and help of several care units, there are ways these clients can recover.

The Orange County Community Indicators report states that because more attention has been brought to the opioid-related incidents in OC, the number of hospitalized individuals and the death rate have decreased.

“Detox usually takes a client three to seven days, residential treatment stays last from 45 to 90 days and outpatient treatment usually lasts between six and 12 months,” Mugrditchian said.

It is inevitable for these individuals to have a difficult time. Not only will they have to progress through these levels of care, but they may have multiple setbacks along the way. 

“Even after progressing all the way through and completing outpatient treatment, clients often need to check in after completion of treatment to stay on track,” said Mugrditchian. Programs, such as recovery services, will allow clients to successfully stay on track. 

The National Institute of Drug Abuse says that it is possible for individuals who suffer from extreme substance use disorders, to successfully overcome their illness and live a healthier lifestyle once again. 

“While many people in recovery believe that abstinence from all substance use is a cardinal feature of a recovery lifestyle, others report that handling negative feelings without using substances and living a contributive life are more important parts of their recovery,” the article states.

Some types of recovery programs include:

  • Recovery centered systems of care
  • Recovery assistance services
  • Social and recreational recovery infrastructures and social media

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