Advance with MUSC Health

Substance Misuse & the Holidays: Help is Available

Advance With MUSC Health
December 13, 2022

While the holidays hold good cheer and promise for many, they can also bring stress and sadness for others. December, January and March are the most dangerous times for drug- and alcohol-related deaths, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The COVID-19 pandemic caused drug and alcohol misuse to reach an alarming rate as more and more people turned to substances, including opioids, alcohol and stimulants, to cope. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that opioid overdose deaths have increased annually over recent years, primarily from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

Thomas Lewis, M.D., an MUSC Health addiction psychiatry physician and clinical assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) 
Edward Thomas Lewis, III, M.D.

"We're in a crisis with opioid misuse," says Dr. Thomas Lewis, an  addiction psychiatry physician and clinical assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). "The rate of overdose deaths involving opioids is among the highest we've seen. A large and growing number of patients are seeking help for severe addiction."

Lewis says the use of fentanyl, which has become widely available through illegal drug manufacturing, is on the rise in South Carolina and many communities. "It's relatively cheap, very potent, and readily available. It's a dangerous combination," he adds. "We've seen a rise in fentanyl overdoses and deaths, especially since the start of the pandemic. Unfortunately, fentanyl is now also being found laced in other drugs, including marijuana."

For people and families struggling with substance use disorder, The Center for Drug and Alcohol Programs (CDAP) at MUSC can be an essential resource, including its evidence-based treatments for opioid use disorder.

The interdisciplinary team at CDAP includes psychologists, therapists and psychiatrists who provide a comprehensive approach that addresses substance use issues as well as co-morbid mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety.

"We're fortunate to have these services under one roof at MUSC," says Lewis. "The center extends its reach by providing education to those wanting to learn more about addiction treatment and for their families and loved ones." CDAP has worked to continue providing care through the pandemic, with services and treatments designed to meet people where they are.

The impact of isolation during the last couple of years, combined with economic and psychological burdens, helped fuel the rise in addiction. It has been challenging for many patients to access care for substance use due to reduced staffing and lower bed capacity at many residential treatment facilities.

"The pandemic has taken a toll on people trying to get help and recover since traditional treatment options were often shut down or offered reduced services. Many people couldn't get into rehab or recovery programs."

And while the expanded use of telehealth has been helpful, "being present in a room, with others who are also seeking recovery, is a powerful tool for helping those in recovery," says Lewis. Going forward, collaborating as a treatment team and finding creative ways to offer the best evidence-based care for patients is crucial.

"We're creating new collaborations and partnering with others to get people the treatment and care they need in these new circumstances," says Lewis.

The Signs of Opioid Addiction

If you think a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction and needs help, look for the signs.

"These are certain red flags that could signal it's time to ask if your loved one needs help and to talk about substance use," says Lewis.

  • Sudden changes in behavior that cannot otherwise be explained
  • Heavily sedated appearance or what seems like withdrawal symptoms
  • Missing medications
  • Drug paraphernalia

How to Help

Addiction is a brain disorder as life-threatening as heart disease or diabetes; it's also a leading cause of death. If your loved one has an alcohol or drug addiction, they should know help is available.

"When possible, approach your concerns from a place of help and concern as opposed to judgment or anger," advises Lewis. When Lewis works with the families of patients who have substance use disorders, he likes to use an analogy.

"When you fly on a plane, you're advised to put on your oxygen mask in an emergency before you try to help others. If you first take care of yourself, you can breathe, you can help, you can think clearer. This is also true when it comes to helping and supporting those struggling with active addiction," he says.

Lewis says it's important for family and friends to pause, set boundaries and get support by talking to a professional or joining groups like Al-Anon. These steps will help you understand what your loved one is going through so you can provide support in a meaningful way.

CDAP offers many treatment options, including intensive outpatient, individual outpatient and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). The MUSC Institute of Psychiatry also has an inpatient addiction unit. To learn more about the clinic, call 843-792-5200.