The pandemic has increased addiction. We must invest in treatment

David Marcovitz and Katie D. White

  • David Marcovitz, M.D., directs the Division of Addiction Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is co-director of the Vanderbilt Bridge Clinic along with Katie D. White, M.D, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine and co-director of the Vanderbilt Bridge Clinic.

Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the prevalence of substance use disorder to record levels, with drug overdoses in 2020 up over those in 2019, reaching 91,000 deaths nationwide. Overdose deaths in Tennessee mirror this national trend.

Thistle Farms volunteer Levi Hummon leaves a note before dropping off food and other supplies for clients and alumni recovering from addiction and trafficking on Thursday, March 26, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.

As a front-line addiction specialists at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, we have witnessed the devastation of this uptick in substance problems — especially opioid and methamphetamine use — first-hand. Most concerning, I know that young adults are the majority of those affected by substance use disorder, making them unavailable for work and family life at a time when their employers, spouses and children need them most.

For Tennesseans to rebound from this costly pandemic will require a multi-layered approach, including public-private partnerships. One critical element involves an investment in addiction treatments with known efficacy.

Though most Tennesseans know someone who has personally struggled with mental illness, including addiction issues, fewer are aware of the medical treatments that are most effective or the many costs to society when treatment is denied.

Mike Cronic holds a picture of his son, Clay Cronic, on April 1, 2020. His son died of a drug overdose after he lost his job and couldn’t meet with other people in recovery due to government restrictions to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

What is addiction?

David Marcovitz

Addiction (substance use disorder) is best viewed as a brain illness in which circuits related to reward, stress management and executive planning become disrupted or even highjacked following repeated exposure to a substance or behavior. The disease narrative is supported by research showing similar genetic vulnerability and treatment responsiveness to other chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, diabetes or asthma. Effective treatments for addiction include both medications and psychosocial treatments like group and individual counseling, including referral to community mutual help (self-help) groups.