Psychological service available to those experiencing problematic substance use
As we pass the one-year mark of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s little doubt the virus has taken its toll on the mental health of many Canadians.
For one UBC Okanagan researcher, a difficult consequence has been witnessing some turn to problematic substance use as a way of coping with pandemic-related stressors.
Ian Wellspring is a doctoral student in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences’ clinical psychology program, and a graduate student clinician working under the supervision of Dr. Zach Walsh in UBC Okanagan’s Problematic Substance Use Clinic.
As the pandemic lingers on, Wellspring offers his observations about increased problematic substance use during COVID-19 and the low-barrier services available through UBCO to assist British Columbians.
Are you surprised by the Canadian Centre for Substance Use and Addiction’s study results?
Unfortunately, I don’t find the results surprising-the sad reality is that COVID-19 has increased our stress levels, caused us grief, isolation, anxiety and many of us are also experiencing economic insecurities because of it. So, when we consider all of these factors that might be acting as potential stressors, regrettably, I think the results are somewhat expected.
Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen an uptick in substance use across the board whether it’s alcohol, stimulants or opioids. In fact, some data also suggests there’s been a 30 to 40 per cent increase in deaths related to opioid use since COVID-19, which is concerning.
Substance use risk increases in the face of this reality-and in combination with stressors like isolation, grief, anxiety or finances-has a detrimental impact on our mental health. This, in turn, drives the progression to addiction. So this is something we should all be concerned about.
What are some of the reasons people with problematic substance use don’t seek help?
There’s a whole host of reasons why people don’t get help, or feel like they can’t. Some include thinking their use isn’t bad enough to seek treatment, some may worry that they don’t know how to live a good life without that substance, and others may be afraid to fail. There’s still a lot of stigma, which is one of the main barriers to seeking help surrounding substance use and mental health in general. A lot of that comes from attitudes in society, media portrayal of these issues, and the self-judgement, guilt and shame that may come with having lived experience with substance use problems.
The clinic’s mandate is to help the public reduce the negative effects of drug and alcohol use-can you talk more about treatments and what new patients can expect?
We operate on a person-first model and we meet clients wherever they are with regard to substance use. New patients can expect to sit down with their clinician and talk about what’s been going on in their lives, what their concerns are and their future goals. Then the clinician, under the supervision of Dr. Walsh, will work to figure out a treatment plan that will best fit the lifestyle of the individual. Sometimes patients are looking to quit a substance, while others may be interested in decreasing their use. Whatever their goals-our priority is to get them there using empirically-supported approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy and motivational interviewing.
Your clinic is classified as ‘low-barrier.’ What does that mean?
Low-barrier means we’re easy to access and open to all. We’ve tried to decrease financial barriers by structuring fees on a sliding scale based on patients’ income that starts at $10 per hour. We also have flexible payment plans in case individuals can’t pay treatment costs up-front. With the clinic now being offered virtually, we’re hoping that reduces barriers for folks as well-but if people don’t have the appropriate technology to complete treatment, let’s talk about that. If someone is committed to seeking treatment, we’re committed to making it work for them.
Can you discuss some of the clinic’s past successes?
I’m happy to report that we’ve had numerous successes in addressing problematic substance use in the clinic and these really cut across a diverse presentation of substances. We’ve helped patients who have lived experience with alcohol, stimulants, nicotine, opioids and we’ve addressed these issues in a diverse client population. Substance use impacts people from all backgrounds, from the affluent and powerful to some of the most marginalized segments of our community. And our care extends across that spectrum.
I think our successes speak to the importance of getting to know the client and their lifestyle, and tailoring a plan to them. We want everyone to feel comfortable giving us a call and spreading the word about the clinic to friends and family who may need help. We’re not here to judge. No matter where someone is, we’re ready to meet them there.