Recovery Month in the Time of COVID-19

Photo from SAMHSA

September is National Recovery Month, a time for us at the Department of Human Services (DHS) to celebrate people’s journey to recovery from substance use disorder and mental illness.

There’s a lot for us to celebrate. Most people who enter chemical dependency treatment complete it and show considerable improvement, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The institute also notes that abstinence from substance use and other benefits of treatment tend to continue over the long term. Meanwhile, mental illness treatment is highly effective, with between 70 and 90 percent of individuals having a significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life.

Bottom line: People can and do recover.

It takes all of us to step up and support people in recovery. Research shows that peer support services can be a valuable guide for individuals as they work to maintain recovery. Community members —including families, neighbors, employers, educators, charitable organizations, and faith-based institutions — are the backbone of communities that foster recovery among its people.

Support for people in recovery is perhaps more crucial now than ever. National Recovery Month 2020 comes at a difficult time for the state, the nation and the world. There is a great deal of fear that the stress and trauma of the pandemic will lead to, or exacerbate, existing mental health and substance use disorders.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic downturn have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders,” the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in April. Nearly half of adults in the United States surveyed by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus. In a Journal of American Medicine Association (JAMA) article on psychology, also in April, called “Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease 2019 — A Perfect Storm?” the authors discuss a range of factors such as economic stress, barriers to mental health treatment, and even firearm sales that may play a role in suicide rates.

While the long-term effects of stress and trauma remain to be seen, without question the COVID-19 pandemic has made getting services more difficult for many people in recovery or working to achieve recovery. Substance use disorder treatment programs have remained open, as they are considered essential services. But outside of those programs, many other substance use disorder and mental health services have not been readily available. How can you work with your drug and alcohol counselor or your mental health provider, if you have to socially distance?

Probably the most critical change that took place for substance use disorder and mental health services was allowing more services via streaming video and telephone.Telemedicine – whether by telephone or video – seems an obvious solution. But unfortunately, public pay options did not initially allow for such remote services. Video was allowed for substance use disorder Rule 25 assessments for treatment; telephone was not. In large parts of the state that do not have broadband service, many support places had to close or sharply curtail their services.

Our work at DHS was clear: From the very beginning of the state peacetime emergency, we and other state agencies had to ensure people could get the services they need and stay safe from COVID-19. Since April, across all of human services, DHS has made 83 (and counting) changes in state laws and rules to help people get the services they need. Probably the most critical change that took place for substance use disorder and mental health services was allowing more services via streaming video and telephone. This involved an executive order for some services, but for most, it meant going to the federal government to obtain a “waiver.” All of this took a great deal of work and a great deal more time than anyone wanted it to, but it got done.

Meanwhile, we allowed organizations more flexibility so they can do business safely. Many organizations that receive grants from DHS were allowed to spend previously approved funds on maintaining safety, such as purchasing telehealth equipment and programs. We also allowed for delaying many business processes that would normally be done face to face, such as recertification.

We cannot forget the people for whom recovery still remains in their future.We also helped connect providers with support from other agencies and the federal government, such as Provider Relief Funds and meeting preparedness planning requirements.

We cannot forget the people for whom recovery still remains in their future. Many people who need treatment are not seeking the help they need to begin their path to recovery. About half of the adults with a co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorder in the past year did not receive either type of service. Nationally, an estimated 8.3 percent of adults with these co-occurring disorders received both mental health care and specialty substance use treatment, 38.2 percent received only mental health care, and 4.4 percent received only specialty substance use treatment.

The Department of Human Services is here to support people in recovery. But it takes more than government; it takes the entire community. How can you help? Go to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website at www.samhsa.gov to find resources for friends and families of those with substance use disorder and mental illness.

Recovery Month is a national effort by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Every September, SAMHSA sponsors Recovery Month to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover. For more information about Recovery Month, visit www.recoverymonth.gov.


Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa is the Assistant Commissioner, Community Supports Administration at the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

Last Updated on September 9, 2020

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