By Joe Dziemianowicz
Matt, a lifelong New Yorker who’s in Alcoholics Anonymous, keeps an eye peeled for personal anniversaries. One is set to arrive on May 19.
“I will be four years sober then,” he said.
If the COVID-19 lockdown is still in place then in the city as expected, he’ll mark another milestone—62 consecutive days of digital AA.
Since March 19, the 36-year-old Bronx firefighter has led a nightly meeting at 9 p.m. as a way to replace—and then some—his go-to weekly meeting held in a neighborhood church closed by the coronavirus.
“It occurred to me that I could host meetings on Zoom,” said Matt, who knew videoconferencing from earlier work in marketing. He preferred using just his first name for this story. “Idle time is the devil’s playground. A lot of people have found comfort in that we now meet every night.” His plan: Keep up this schedule until the crisis passes.
Around the five boroughs and beyond, people have traded in-person support — 12-step programs for addiction to booze, drugs, sex and so on; group-therapy sessions; one-on-one counseling for anxiety, and so on — for remote alternatives. Support is virtual, whether via Zoom, /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +6.78% Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting or another platform — but the benefits are real.
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Ask Dr. Andrew Merling, a clinical psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor in psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Since mid-March, his in-office sessions on West 58th Street in Manhattan have all shifted to being online or by phone.
That includes a long-running weekly group session for nine men dealing with substance abuse.
“I’d never used platforms like Zoom before,” Merling said. “I discouraged it. There can be distractions. I like to work with people in the same room, where you can get more cues and a closer connection.”
Going remote, he added, “was an adjustment.” And an urgent and necessary one considering the toll of COVID-19 and the quarantine. Since the pandemic, one patient who’d been clean for about four months relapsed, one lost his job, while another got socked with a salary cut, he said.
“All these added stressors, plus the need to stay home and the isolation, are leading to more instability. Not just for substance abuse, but I’ve noticed, as you would imagine, more anxiety and depression,” he said. “I’m hearing things like, ‘I’m just really tempted to use at this point.’”
The group dynamics reflect what’s happening all over the U.S., according to studies, including a recent KFF Health Tracking poll covering work and wellness. It showed that more than half of U.S. adults — 56% — report that coronavirus-related worry has caused them to experience at least one negative effect on their mental health and well-being, including problems such as increased alcohol use, or worsening chronic conditions.
“Imagine if this crisis happened pre-internet,” said Merling, who is now three weeks into digital therapy sessions with Mount Sinai staffers on Friday nights to help them decompress.
When it comes to longtime patients, Merling said Zoom sessions have yielded unexpected benefits.