James DiReda, LICSW, PhD, Associate Professor of Social Work in the School of Professional Studies at Anna Maria College, and partner at Lake Ave Recovery in Worcester, MA (www.lakeaverecovery.com), discusses addiction in response to September being recognized as National Recovery Month. Dr. DiReda is the co-author of The East Side of Addiction, a story of himself and co-authors Hank Grosse and Jack Maroney, kids from Worcester’s East Side, as they struggled for two decades to confront addiction and embrace recovery.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic has added enormous challenges for people in recovery. How are clinicians and recovery resource providers continuing to address these needs?

DiReda: Due to the restrictions, limitations, and fear around social distancing as a result of COVID-19, clinical providers that I am familiar with have opted to conduct telehealth sessions with those seeking services, or some other variation of virtual service delivery, including phone, computer, and platforms like Zoom or Go to Meeting.  The clinicians and staff at programs that I have spoken to report that the amount of people seeking services has not dropped at all, and in fact, has increased, along with improved “no-show” rates, due to cancellations or folks simply not showing up for appointments. It appears many individuals seeking treatment like the convenience of the virtual service delivery format, and many, consumers and providers, request to continue using the virtual format.

Q: Prior to COVID-19, the societal crisis that had our attention was substance abuse and addiction. That crisis hasn’t dissipated. With increased stress and isolation due to COVID-19, what’s the state of substance abuse and addiction in the region?

DiReda: Anecdotally, what I am hearing is that the rates of substance use, addiction has risen, but I don’t know the exact numbers as that data is fairly fluid at present.  As a result of the restrictions placed upon individuals and organizations due to COVID, treatment programs have had to tailor their programs regarding capacity of individuals they serve, how staff are limited in their ability and desire to be onsite and work with people in close proximity. This has impacted the number of people receiving treatment at any given time, leaving many with substance use disorders going untreated, furthering their isolation and lack of connection to treatment or mutual support groups like NA, AA, etc., thus making it harder for those addicted to seek recovery supports.

Q: Anna Maria College has several areas of study for students interested in mental health and careers related to treating those affected by substance abuse. Where are Anna Maria graduates employed and how does Anna Maria prepare students for these difficult but critically important jobs?

DiReda: Anna Maria College offers training and education to students in a variety of professions and disciplines, including social work, psychology, nursing, law enforcement, and others. When students graduate, and go on to join the workforce, regardless of discipline or profession, they are likely to encounter individuals with substance use disorders. The inclusion of courses on substance use, the Minor in Addiction Studies, and the soon to be Major in Addiction Studies is designed to teach students about substance use and substance use disorders so when they do encounter people experiencing related problems, they will be better equipped to interact with those individuals, engaging them rather than alienating or shaming them, and hopefully, assist them access the services needed.

Q: In what other ways can higher education be a part of the addiction and recovery support network?

DiReda: Anna Maria College also has a very prominent presence in the local community as an institution that is at the forefront of this issue, and has worked closely over the past four years with community members and constituencies as part of our Round Table Group, whose focus is on helping agencies, organizations, students, faculty, community members and others better understand substance use disorders, and what is being done to address them. Also, Anna Maria College works closely with treatment programs, funding sources, and providers who offer treatment and education around substance use to develop relationships. Through these relationships, Anna Maria College students have been able to secure Field Placements to intern at those agencies as part of their academic training, learning in the field about substance use disorders under direct supervision of those providing services.  We also have had students develop and host annual conferences focusing on substance use disorders and offered a speaker series of experts in the field of substance use to come to Anna Maria College and share their expertise.

Q: Back to September being National Recovery Month. What do you want people to know about addiction and recovery?

DiReda: What we want people to know is that: people with substance use disorders/addictions are first and foremost human beings. They are someone’s mother, father, sister, and brother, etc. Also, we want people to know that individuals with addictions CAN and DO recover!  They can change and get better, but they need help, which is why it is paramount that we understand this sickness, and to also know what helps and what doesn’t. We want people to take the time to learn about this illness. And lastly, to please not judge, shame, those afflicted with this illness. Although individuals make a choice to initially drink or use drugs, NO ONE ever wants to become addicted.

About Anna Maria College

Located just outside of Worcester in Paxton, MA, Anna Maria College is a private, co-educational institution inspired by the ideals of the Sisters of Saint Anne. We prepare students to become ethical leaders by combining a values-based, service-focused education with strong functional knowledge and the skills necessary to address the rapidly changing needs of their world. Anna Maria delivers undergraduate and graduate degrees along with certificate programs on campus and online. For more information, visit www.annamaria.edu.