Oregon wildfires hinder addiction, mental health recovery

Special Reports

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Between the coronavirus pandemic, social unrest, and widespread wildfires, 2020 has been an overwhelming year for many Americans. It’s been even worse for those coping with mental health and addiction issues.

“When it seems like the world is falling apart and we’re all on our own, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns,” said Janie Gullickson, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon (MHAAO).

MHAAO aims to connect people with mental health and addiction recovery services. It’s a peer-run organization, meaning almost all of its staff have lived through mental health or addiction challenges of their own. The peer support specialists went remote as soon as COVID started, Gullickson said, meeting with clients via Zoom, Facetime, or other virtual tools. But wildfires threw them another curveball.

When it seems like the world is falling apart and we’re all on our own, it’s easy to fall back into old patterns

Janie Gullickson, Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon executive director

Gullickson was among those who had to evacuate, leaving her Beavercreek home behind without knowing if she’d ever return. It was a terrifying moment that brought back memories of the decades she spent dealing with addiction.

“Having rebuilt my life from nothing in the last 12 years of my recovery, it was a weird moment to try and think I could lose everything again,” she said.

Janie Gullickson, exec. dir. of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon, talks with KOIN 6 News about how wildfires have made it even more difficult for people recovering from addiction or mental health issues (interview via Zoom)

Wildfires also compounded isolation problems the coronavirus pandemic started more than six months ago. People may have felt like it was every person for themselves during evacuation scenarios. Air quality issues trapped people inside their homes. Support groups and established meetings were thrown in flux during the frenzy.

Gullickson said she’s heard from her staff, as well as people who work in similar programs like needle exchanges, that people have been having far more relapses since COVID started. Substance use appears to be up even among people who don’t normally struggle with addiction. Nielsen data shows alcohol sales have gone up and OLCC data reveals Oregon’s marijuana sales have skyrocketed amid the pandemic.

While the threat of wildfires has largely subsided, COVID-related lockdowns and limitations on in-person connections remain. Gullickson has one main piece of advice for anyone who may be struggling: Reach out.

Resources:

Gullickson recommends several resources, including the website Peer Galaxy, which has links to support groups, services, online and phone outreach information, and more.

The David Romprey Oregon Warmline is a peer-run program where people can find a listening ear, support, and possibly get connected to services if that’s what they need. You can call 1-800-698-2392 from 9 a.m. and 11 p.m. seven days a week.

The Oregon Health Authority and nonprofit Lines For Life launched a Safe + Strong Helpline last week, offering free, 24-7 emotional support and resource referral that is open to anyone, not only people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. The number is 1-800-923-HELP (4357).

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