Online addiction treatment – Is it effective and could it provide help during this time?

Online addiction treatment – Is it effective and could it provide help during this time?

Many experts fear that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and accompanying lockdown measures could be fuelling an epidemic of addiction issues. 

Dr Emily Finch, an NHS addiction psychiatrist and the vice-chair of the addictions faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Guardian that alcohol services throughout the country were already starting to see that some of their clients were drinking much more than usual and that their lives were becoming even more chaotic. 

Dr Tony Rao, a consultant psychiatrist at the NHS’ biggest mental health trust in South London and Maudsley, added that the majority of people referred to his team over recent days had been referred due to drugs and alcohol issues related to the lockdown.

Alcohol was the main issue and Dr Rao said that problems appeared to be worsening due to people becoming more socially isolated. This involved less support and direct contact with family and friends than they were used to. The fear of getting the virus was also causing anxiety, which was leading some people to increase their alcohol consumption. 

Coronavirus could be the ‘tipping crisis’ for many drug users 

Alcohol consumption definitely appears to be up and there are also fears that the lockdown might be exacerbating some people’s addiction to illicit drugs, as well as compulsive gambling. 

Prof Adam Winstock, the founder and director of the Global Drug Survey told the Guardian: “I’m certain there will be a proportion of people for whom Covid will be the tipping crisis. Where previously their use of weed or coke was once or twice a week, it’s now three or four times a week, and when they don’t use, they’re feeling anxious and miserable. 

“If you were someone who was verging towards problematic use, you’re either going to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reduce use and improve mental health, or your use is going to escalate. And as you run out of your preferred choice of drug, you will look for other drugs to compensate for that.” 

The problem is twofold. Factors such as anxiety, fear, grief, uncertainty and boredom that are associated with the pandemic and lockdown trigger more destructive and addictive behaviour.

At the same time, NHS resources are stretched to the limit, services in other areas including drug addiction treatment are being cut and addicts are no longer able to access resources such as support groups, rehabs and treatment programmes in person. 

Rehab clinics are generally considered to be one of the most effective substance abuse treatment options but with social distancing rules in place, they might not be readily available for many of the people who would have used their help.  

Drug and alcohol addiction online treatment 

So could online addiction treatment help plug the gap? 

Most of us spend more time online than ever before and health services of all kinds are becoming increasingly digitised. This includes addiction treatment and a number of studies suggest that paid or free online addiction treatment can be very effective. 

A recent Yale University study looked at 137 users of alcohol, cocaine, opioids or marijuana, all of whom had been diagnosed with abuse or dependence problems. They were split into three groups, with one receiving weekly group counselling, one receiving face to face cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and the third used a specially designed online addiction treatment programme called CBT4CBT. This programme featured a number of elements including cognitive behaviour therapy delivered by video, interactive exercises and quizzes.  

The results were impressive. At the end of the treatment period, nearly half of the subjects had dropped out of both the face to face programmes. Only around a quarter had failed to complete the sentiments of CBT4CBT programme.

Furthermore, over two thirds (67%) of those taking the web-based programme were found to no longer meet the official diagnostic criteria for substance abuse. The same was true for just over half (52%) of those who underwent face to face CBT and 43% of those given the standard counselling. 

Online programme lowered drug and alcohol use 

An earlier study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2014 showed similarly promising results. 255 adults used another web-based programme called the Therapeutic Education System (TES) while the same number engaged in a standard face to face outpatient treatment for addiction.

Writing in Psychology Today Adi Jaffe, Ph.D said that the online programme was found to reduce drug and alcohol use. Participants were also more likely to remain in face to face programmes when supplementary online treatment was also used. 

With the lockdown still looking set to continue in some form for the foreseeable future, therapists, counsellors and others are increasingly offering online 1-2-1 addiction treatment while groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous are offering support meetings online.

The internet clearly has a role to play in drug abuse and treatment but support is not limited to alcohol and substance abuse, with gambling addiction online treatment also available. 

There are also a number of apps and other online resources and tools that, while not offering complete treatment programmes, can certainly be helpful. Sober Grid allows you to interact with other people in recovery via a Facebook-style platform and also create anonymous daily check-ins where you can record your mood, whether you’re sober and other pieces of information. Using GPS you can even find other sober people nearby – although meeting up for support might not be appropriate just yet. 

Nomo’s Sobriety Clocks is another good free tool that helps you track your length of sobriety and share progress – if you wish to – with friends, partners, counsellors, coaches and others. The WEconnect app provides daily reminders to stay on track within a recovery plan and can also check into meetings, treatment sessions and one-to-one sessions with counsellors. 

As lockdown eases, more addiction rehab options will become available but it seems likely that online addiction treatment will continue to play a larger part for many recovering addicts.