More people are seeking help to treat mental illnesses and substance abuse as the Delta variant of COVID-19 causes a surge in case counts, hospitalizations and deaths in Hawaii and across the nation.

In March, the Biden administration provided nearly $2.5 billion in funding to states to specifically address the mental illness and addiction crisis that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.

While hard data for the full year of 2020 is not available, the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention has released preliminary data confirming a rise in fatal overdoses, an increase in emergency room visits for suicides and overdoses, and increases in calls to helplines across the country.

There are many aspects of the pandemic that can escalate substance abuse — more accurately called substance use disorder — and increase anxiety, according to Dr. Neeraj Gandotra, chief medical officer of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.

“The idea of a pandemic itself has increased anxiety in people without substance use disorders, but for individuals with those conditions, some of that regular treatment was interrupted, which could cause any progress to worsen,” Gandotra said. “There was also a lot of unemployment and there is a direct correlation between unemployment and substance use and suicide.”

Gandotra also noted that substance use disorders can be made worse by isolation, which has been much more prevalent due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantine requirements.

“We normally have connections to our friends and jobs, but now we have people sitting at home for days, weeks, or months on end. With very little social interaction, some people are using the opportunity to use substances alone,” Gandotra said. “As dependence on substances increases, people become less and less engaged with their loved ones and other activities.

“Substance use disorder thrives in the dark,” Gandotra continued.

In July, SAMHSA awarded 100 grants, totaling $250 million, to certified community behavioral health centers.

The grants will help increase access to facilities throughout the nation that provide community-based support for Americans in need of substance use disorder and mental health treatment services, particularly those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When SAMHSA became aware of the impact of COVID-19 on mental health and substance use disorders, we did our best to mobilize our resources for behavioral health centers,” Gandotra said. “SAMHSA will keep doing its part to help these facilities, because they are a vital resource to people and mental health and substance use issues don’t just go away.”

Joyce and J.F. Benoist own the Exclusive Addiction Treatment Center, a licensed and accredited addiction treatment center in Hakalau.

The eight-bed, skills-based program helps people overcome addiction, eating disorders and mental health issues. The business was founded in 2011 by the Benoists, a husband-and-wife team who have decades of experience with personal growth, mental health and trauma treatment.

Last year, the facility closed very temporarily before reopening with new rules for patients seeking help during the pandemic.

“When the pandemic started, the health department couldn’t guide us, and SAMHSA asked treatment centers to stay open if we could. The whole industry was going back and forth a lot, so we relied on our colleagues and doctors,” Joyce Benoist said. “We closed for a bit and then came up with a good protocol combined with partial quarantines. We found that there are lots of ways to interact, and we’ve made a lot of improvements as a result.”

Similarly to Gandotra, Benoist noticed that many people with mental health issues were getting buried deeper within their conditions due to the constant isolation in the beginning of the pandemic.

“What we’ve seen is that use of alcohol and drugs has greatly increased. Isolation for a majority of people has created a deeper depression and higher anxiety,” Joyce Benoist said. “We are connectors, we need each other.”

Benoist said that one-on-one connection is important for recovery, especially if access to recovery groups is more challenging during the pandemic. Connection could be with a mental health professional, or trusted friends, family and mentors.

“If people feel comfortable enough, I think that eye-to-eye connection is so important between family and friends. You don’t have to be in a big group to feel connected,” Joyce Benoist said. “For those that aren’t suffering through mental illness, it’s important to remember to create intentional space and to check in with our friends who may not be doing well and need support.

I think COVID-19 has changed us all, so it’s important to be tender and present for people who have gone through trauma or grief in a way that works for them,” Joyce Benoist said.

For 10 years, the Exclusive Addiction Treatment Center has approached substance use treatment holistically, without the traditional 12-step programs, by using the Core Belief Restructuring methodology to address the root causes of addiction.

“We’re not just trying to make symptoms go away. We want to find what’s causing addiction in the first place, whether it’s shame, grief, depression or anything,” Joyce Benoist said. “If you see smoke in your home, you wouldn’t rip out the batteries in your smoke detector to stop the problem. You’d look for the source of the smoke. That’s how we like to approach people struggling with substance use disorder.”

During the past few months, the Big Island Substance Abuse Council, or BISAC, has seen a significant increase in people seeking services for substance use and mental health, according to Chief Executive Officer Dr. Hannah Preston-Pita.

“Mental health and substance use has become a significant issue, especially trying to navigate through COVID times,” Preston-Pita said. “People who would not normally ask for help are seeking us out since they are handling intense feelings of grief and loss.”

Preston-Pita said more people are seeking help after losing their jobs, homes and loved ones.

“People are dealing with a lot more trauma from the individual effects of the pandemic,” Preston-Pita said. “Our providers and employees that treat people are also experiencing the same feelings, and work has become a big task for them.”

BISAC has found that people are using substances to manage the mental pain they are facing due to the persistent effects of COVID-19.

“There are so many factors from the pandemic contributing to substance use disorder, because people use drugs and alcohol to dull pain and cope,” Preston-Pita said. “When you don’t have access to people or regular services, that only makes it worse.”

BISAC offers various levels of therapies and treatment programs for adults as well as services for youth across the Big Island.

“If people are suffering right now, I want to tell them to not suffer in isolation,” Preston-Pita said. “I know there is an aspect of shame attached to issues with substance use and mental health, but the truth is there are many people here ready to help.”