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Going The (Social) Distance

Social Distancing is not fun.

When writing news, I typically try to stick to neutral language and remarks, but I believe the above sentiment to be so universally felt by those who have been affected by the spread of COVID-19 that I’m leaving it in. 

Social Distancing, as defined by The Free Dictionary, is a practice of disease prevention and control that aims to spread out communities to prevent those who have a disease from infecting the healthy. The definition gives several examples of measures taken to implement this preventative measure. All of the examples (bulleted below) are currently being implemented in at least one state in the USA.

  • Having Children Stay Out Of School When They Are Ill:
    • NJ State Gov. Murphy ordered all NJ schools to be closed in an effort to slow the coronavirus outbreak. No re-open date has been given thus far.
  • Closing Social Establishments
  • Requesting Individuals To Avoid Large Social Gatherings (Including religious gatherings & sporting events)

Despite the severity of these limitations, many Americans are more than willing to surrender their social pleasures and do their part in hindering the advance of COVID-19. However, certain troubled populations have been hit much harder by this new restriction.

Foremost among those populations are persons who struggle with an addiction, whether it be to a substance (painkillers, alcohol) or behavior (gambling, eating). Countless studies on addiction recovery have found that patients with stronger social networks are less likely to relapse, whether those networks come in the form of independent programs (i.e. Alcoholics Anonymous), peer support groups, or individual connections.

One 2008 article titled “Effectiveness of a peer‐support community in addiction recovery: Participation as intervention”, looked specifically at how the presence of such a community would affect patients’ risk of relapse. Authored by Rosemary Boisvert and colleagues, this study used mixed methods to determine the effectiveness of its peer programs. Patients participated in semi-structured interviews and completed pre/post testing surveys aimed at gauging how far they believed themselves to have come in the recovery process as well as their faith in their own abilities to prevent relapse.

The following chart displays some of Biosvert et al. (2008) findings:

This chart displays the number of relapses recorded by participants in Boisvert’s study, split into two columns: One month before participants attended the social support group set up by this study, and one month after. The “mean” row at the bottom indicates that after the program’s conclusion, the mean number of relapses per month had reduced significantly from what it had been before the support group programs took place.

These results indicate that peer programs “can have a significant positive impact on recovery from substance addictions”, as countless recovering addicts who attend scheduled ‘Anonymous’ programs can likely attest to. (Boisvert) 

Despite these benefits, social distancing and quarantine restrictions have pushed numerous ‘anonymous’ groups online. Furthermore, the closure of business and restrictions on public gatherings, in addition to the general public fears regarding infection and contamination, have resulted in fewer in-person social interactions across much of the United States.

Some persons in recovery are troubled by the effects of social distancing on their progress towards sobriety, voicing their complaints on Twitter.

However, addiction mutual help programs have taken steps towards increasing their digital presence to combat the fears and regulations on interpersonal gatherings.

In addition, the social media accounts of these anonymous programs encourage users to reach out and connect with persons whom they know are going through recovery, providing whatever amount of social contact they can.

But are these efforts having an effect? Although we can’t say for sure, my quick dive into social media posts surrounding this topic suggests that it is. 

From March 23rd to today, I noticed at least three times as many positive, supporting Tweets regarding social distancing and recovery than I did negative Tweets. 

This is a step in the right direction, but there’s still a long road ahead for those struggling to overcome addictive substances or behaviors. In these trying times, countless individuals struggle due to the absence of interpersonal contact and/or financial hardships brought about by quarantine regulations. 

Aside from staying vigilant and promoting the health of oneself and one’s family, sending supportive messages online to those who may be struggling is a simple yet powerful action towards bettering the mental wellness of our communities.

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies