Cindy I’s struggle with alcohol started years before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, but months into the global health crisis it became too much for her.
“I had moved in with someone that I just shouldn’t have,” said the former Chaska-area resident as she recalled how her addiction started more than four years ago. “There was a lot of chaos in the house, and my way of dealing with it was drinking alone and hiding.”
She said the growing isolation and chaos, compounded with COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, fed her addiction.
“I knew I needed a facility,” she said.
Through a crisis center, she found the Pathways House program in Rochester and later landed a space at Cronin Home, a facility providing sober housing for up to 44 people in recovery.
Cindy said it provides the stability she needs to move forward.
Mike Frisch, Cronin Home’s executive director, said that’s the facility’s daily goal.
“These are folks who would otherwise be in an unsafe living environment,” he said.
He said he’s seen needs increase amid the pandemic as support groups temporarily stopped meeting in person and other sources of connection became more difficult to access.
“When they are in need of reaching out and getting support from other people, which is shown to be the most effective manner for helping the struggling alcoholic and chemically dependent person trying to maintain recovery … not being able to do that is going to have a negative impact on their ability to maintain abstinence and stay in recovery,” he said.
Tom Truszinski, director of Rochester’s Adult and Teen Challenge operations, said he’s seeing the effects firsthand as people arrive for treatment under deeper and darker circumstances due to isolation that has fed their addictions.
“Isolation is their haven,” he said of addiction and related mental illness that can lead a person to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs.
Monique Bourgeois, chief community relations officer for Nuway, which operates The Gables and Rochester Counseling Centers, said face-to-face counseling and support groups have traditionally been the best way to combat the isolation.
“I like to say the opposite of addiction is connection, and how we connect has really been altered in the past year,” she said, adding that the sense of community also holds people more accountable.
Cindy agreed, saying group meetings held Wednesdays at Cronin Home help her.
“Coming down here on Wednesday nights and listening to everybody and talking to people kind of reinforces everything,” she said, acknowledging she’d likely start drinking again without the added support.
Martin E, who has stayed at Cronin Home three times since 2014 with his most-recent stay starting in 2018, said he sees the impact of the pandemic in the mood at the facility.
“All people’s personalities have just kind of been crushed,” he said.
Martin, who asked not to use his last name, said he was initially concerned about new residents bringing COVID-19 into the house, but his personal experience shows him why maintaining open doors is important, especially after cardiac complications led to his current stay.
“I figured this was a place to keep me alive, keep me away from the bottle and keep me away from street narcotics,” he said.
While Martin did contract COVID-19 in November, the facility had a quarantine plan in place and hasn’t seen a confirmed case among residents since then.
Some residents, including Cindy, haven’t been reluctant to seek housing or inpatient services, but providers say others have.
“They were actually fearing COVID more than their addiction,” Truszinski said.
He pointed to the 31 percent statewide increase in drug overdose deaths early last year as a result.
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 490 drug overdose deaths in the first half of 2020, compared to 373 in 2019.
Locally, Olmsted County has seen its own increases, more than tripling the number of commitments solely based addiction in 2020, compared to 2019. With 31 cases, it also provided a five-year high for the action that requires an examiner's letter and a judge’s ruling that the person faces imminent risk.
Tiffany Hunsley, founder and director of Recovery is Happening, said the difficulty to get such a ruling means the local findings are significant.
She said the numbers are just a portion of the increased need for inpatient and outpatient programs being seen. It’s an increase, she said, started before COVID-19 with a growing local population and has been boosted by the pandemic.
Amy Thompson, Olmsted County’s Adult and Family Services director, said the five-year high in chemical dependency commitments overlaps a decline in mental illness commitments, leading to potential insights on how the issues are connected.
“We wonder if that social isolation, depression, anxiety, untreated mental health concerns are fueling that increased alcohol and chemical use, that’s maybe bringing them to the attention of law enforcement, which then leads to the referral to us,” she said.
Meanwhile, Malia Grant, a senior social worker with the county’s adult behavioral unit, said a closer look into the last six months shows the total number of commitments are at average levels, but in the past only about 20 percent have been related solely to chemical dependency.
“We have actually seen more of a 50-50 split,” she said of the past six months.
“There’s a lot of different factors that have played into that,” she added, citing challenges related to coping with new stressors and being able to hide alcohol and drug use.
Whether it’s challenges based on addiction alone or addiction combined with mental illness, local providers and others predict they will outlast the pandemic.
“Untreated addiction and mental illness are at levels we’ve never seen,” Truszinski said, adding the numbers will remain high as people emerge from pandemic-fueled isolation.
“It will take a lot of counseling and a lot of healing,” he added.
Bourgeois said she thinks people will feel more comfortable reaching out for help after COVID-19 risks are reduced, which will mean service needs will remain elevated.
Others also noted such trends tend to linger beyond changes that sparked them.
“The problem is addiction isn’t a switch that can be turned off,” said Shawn Mintey, a senior social worker with the county’s adult behavioral unit.
Amid COVID-19 precautions and challenges, agencies working with people struggling with addiction and recovery say one message is key: We’re available.
“It’s important not to delay care. Just like any other chronic condition -- it’s better to get treatment sooner, rather than later,” said Bourgeois.
- Adult and Teen Challenge -- Outpatient and inpatient services can be reached at 507-218-3460 or mntc.org
- Recovery Is Happening -- Information regarding meetings, assessments, outpatient, sober supportive housing and peer recovery specialist is available at www.rih.me
- Nuway -- Information on inpatient and outpatient services are available at www.nuway.org
- Cronin House -- Information on sober living housing is available at www.thecroninhome.org
- Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous -- lists of meetings are available at https://findrecovery.com/aa_meetings/mn/rochester/ or https://addictionresource.com/na-meetings/rochester-mn/ Some listings might not have been updated with COVID-related cancellations.