COMMENTARY: Pandemic fed substance abuse

By Eduardo Salinas, Special to MyRGV.com

Many restrictions that were placed following the COVID-19 pandemic are beginning to loosen up and as we continue to keep ourselves, our families, friends and neighbors safe, it is important that we recognize the ongoing epidemic of substance abuse in our communities.

We have heard about the rise in alcohol sales during the lockdown and stay-at-home orders, but the use of substances in stressful situations is not a new-found coping mechanism. The strain and pressure caused by the pandemic in the past year could be an added risk factor for those already suffering from substance use disorders.

Risk factors are something that increase an individual’s chance of being exposed to diseases or conditions, while protective factors may counteract or eliminate the risks. Since the COVID-19 pandemic and its added stressors can be categorized as risk factors, it is essential that we counteract those with protective factors in our communities.

The month of April is recognized as Alcohol Awareness Month while in the month of May the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration observes National Prevention Week (May 9-17). During months like these, prevention programs really try to push our message and services to raise awareness and promote education of the ongoing issues.

The Health and Human Services’ outreach, screening, assessment and referral service is available to all individuals interested in information about substance use services. In 2017 there were a total of 2,068 unduplicated screenings, while in 2019 that number went up to 2,633 unduplicated screenings in Region 11, which includes the Rio Grande Valley. Though more recent data are not available yet, it will be interesting to see whether those numbers have risen or declined with the pandemic.

The Prevention Resource Center, a program of Behavioral Health Solutions of South Texas, serves as the central data collection repository for HHSC’s Region 11; we focus on substance use and abuse data collection, analysis and dissemination. Our services include presentations, community outreach and collaboration with various community agencies, coalitions and task forces in order to educate and spread awareness on prevention.

Our program offered presentations and education during the week of May 10-14. These presentations are geared toward adults and will focus on the important role that prevention has in our community, as well as sharing key findings on substance use trends in our region.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions put in place seem to be easing up, the substance abuse epidemic in our country is ongoing and we must emphasize prevention education to provide those important protective factors for our youth and young adults.

PRC is also the developer of a yearly Regional Needs Assessment, which is available to community members at no cost and can be downloaded on our website: www.prc11.org/data. If you are interested in collaborating with us and would like to play a role in the 2020 Regional Needs Assessment process or if you are interested in receiving data presentations, webinars and more, please contact me at edsalinas@bhsst.org or Karen Rodriguez, PRC data coordinator, at krodriguez@bhsst.org.

Eduardo Salinas is public relations coordinator at the Prevention Resource Center in Pharr.