Online group therapy serves as addiction recovery lifeline during pandemic

In a small room that takes a treasure map to locate, two men are using technology to fight the darkness of addiction. The room is inside the labyrinth of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge at East 24th Street and Chicago. Google Maps will never find them, or their room—but Zoom does.

"Well, hello everybody. My name is Zack and I’m here with my friend Rob," said Zack.

Both men are in recovery from their substance abuse. Zack has been sober for more than a year. Rob, just marked his first anniversary of sobriety. They are now leading an outreach class to Minnesota high school students called "Know The Truth". It’s a popular program teaching teenagers about the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction, and one that is in high demand by high school teachers across the state.

Typically, Teen Challenge facilitators like Zack and Rob would be in a classroom face-to-face with students. But the pandemic has confined them to that small room with nothing more than a ThinkPad and a Zoom connection.

"And really we’re just people, we’re addicts in recovery," Zack told the class joining in from Robinsdale Cooper High School.

Their stories are real and highly personal. It’s only been within the past year that both men have reached a point of confidence in their recovery to share their vulnerability with addiction.

"I was drinking alcohol and I was pretty much a full blown alcoholic by the time I was 9 or 10 years old," Rob told the Zoom meeting.

"We just care about all of you guys and that’s why we do what we do," Zack shared.

The virtual connection lacks the face-to-face interaction that is a powerful part of Know The Truth. But in the middle of a pandemic, Elle Mark, the education coordinator for Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge knows it’s the only connection they have with an age group that is facing unique pressures.

"We talk about the mental health of adults. We talk about the mental health of our peers and our work places. But we forget our youth are going through the same exact thing," said Mark.

Minnesota Teen Challenge facilitators hold a virtual outreach session about the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction.

The pandemic has forced the need for social distancing and isolation to halt, or at least slow the spread of the coronavirus. But at the same time, the separation has created the space for substance abuse and addition when no one else is watching.

"I think that’s a big part of it, the isolation. The isolation is terrible. It’s hard on people," Zack said.

That’s where virtual connections fill the void. Teen Challenge has always been active in digital space, including a YouTube channel. But Teen Challenge Vice President Tim Walsh said it all changed with the pandemic shutdowns and restrictions.

"And then we started ramping up immediately telehealth services," said Walsh. "Through video conferencing, we can do mental health services and substance abuse services on an outpatient basis. And that’s really been a godsend for our programs across the state."
The pandemic has forced the entire recovery community to migrate online. In-person treatment programs are still open, as are the sober houses where those in recovery live together until they can reach a point of strength to continue with their lives and professions. But the outpatient counseling and group therapies have all adapted in digital space. 

Hazelden Betty Ford is a prime example. It has an online platform called "Recovery Go" that John Engebreth, Hazelden Betty Ford’s director of Minnesota outpatient services says was in development before the pandemic began.

"At the beginning of March we had about 550 or 600 individual lives seeking services at Hazelden Betty Ford, and at the end of March we had 550 or 600 individuals getting services almost entirely through our online platform Recovery Go," said Engebreth.

Nine months after Minnesota’s Governor Tim Walz temporarily shut down a large portion of the state’s economy, the "Recovery Go" platform is now getting 100,000 hits a week.

"That is what is most meaningful to me from a mission standpoint is that we are reaching people who might not have said yes to treatment twelve month ago," said Engebreth. "And we’re also able to offer care to people who don’t live in St. Paul, or Maple Grove, or Chaska."

The Retreat, a 12-step recovery program in Wayzata, launched its own online platform years ago called The Retreat’s CEO and co-founder John Curtiss says it was meant to be an online option for people to connect for group support sessions, chats, or other connections to give them alternative support in their recovery.

"We had no idea it would take a global pandemic to make it actually really work," said Curtiss. "But you can go on there any day of the week and have meeting after meeting where you can connect with people face to face."

And those group connections are lifelines for Lisa who’s been sober for seven months.

"And one of the nice things with the virtual meetings these days is I can find one really any time during the day. So, if I’m struggling, I can hop online and there is a likely chance that I can find a meeting that I can attend and reach out and connect with other people," Lisa said.

And this sudden virtual change in recovery is likely to stay after the pandemic is over and people can slowly return to in-person group support and recovery meetings. Mark, who is fifteen months into his own sobriety through The Retreat, longs for those personal connections again, but said the online programing through will become a new face of recovery.

"Yah, they’ve just made ease of access just so friendly and so convenient for people. I think it’s going to be a staple of the recovery community no matter what happens," said Mark.

They are all changes in a year that has turned lives upside down.  The Centers for Disease Control reports that 14% of the people it surveyed had increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic.  In a separate pandemic study, Rand Corporation found 13% of its survey group had started or increased substance abuse.  Another 11% considered suicide.

But for Zack from Teen Challenge, this has been a year of opportunity. "I had the best year of my life with COVID," he said.

"If I can have the best year of my life during something like this," Zack explained, "I can’t imagine what the next year is going to be like and the next year is going to be like.  And I hope that’s hope for somebody out there."

Minnesota has an extremely robust community that supports treatment and recovery.  Here are some resources to consider if you have questions or need help.