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May 21, 2020

COVID-19 putting addiction recovery at risk. Peer counselor: “Reach out”

COVID-19 putting addiction recovery at risk. Peer counselor: “Reach out”

It’s a scary time and people around the globe are searching for ways to cope. With those in addiction recovery, there’s a risk of returning to something too familiar – drugs and alcohol.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes,

They don’t show signs of a virus; but they are still vulnerable. They once depended on drugs or alcohol to make it through the day. Now they are sober, clean and trying to cope with a pandemic that reeks of fear.

As an IU Health peer addiction counselor Spencer Medcalf, 28, understands that fear. He knows the struggle it takes to remain on the path to restoration. After years of abusing alcohol, pain pills, and heroin, this month he celebrates three years of recovery. And he worries about others who are working toward living a clean life.

“I’ve read and seen alcohol sales have gone up 55 percent since COVID-19. We can put it under the larger umbrella of coping but some of those sales have been to people who are dealing with bigger issues of alcoholism or abuse,” said Medcalf.

While he hasn’t seen a drastic increase in peer counseling Medcalf said he is concerned that the virus is steering some people clear of emergency rooms.

“Anyone who would normally go to the emergency room for substance abuse may feel ER is already flooded,” said Medcalf. A second concern he has is that by the nature of the urgency of patient care; medical staff members have their focus on issues outside of addiction.

“It’s no fault of the care team. They are swamped and their attention is diverted to other things,” said Medcalf. In his role as a peer addiction counselor, Medcalf receives calls from nurses, doctors, and other ER team members. Patients who present signs of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol are given the opportunity to engage in a virtual consultation with a recovery coach.

“I generally start the conversation by saying ‘Hi, I’m Spencer Medcalf. I’m a peer recovery coach and most important, I’m a person in long-term recovery,’” said Medcalf. “I was a raging heroin attack so there’s not much that will scare me. If I haven’t done it I’ve probably heard it. Most patients are used to white coats and ER scrubs. When they see me they can see someone who has a full-time job and is in recovery. I’m here to help them navigate the process.”

After an initial consultation, Medcalf, who is one of seven IU Health peer recovery coaches working in the virtual hub, asks the patient if he can follow up.

“I’d say the majority of folks even if they say they don’t have an issue, will let us call them back,” said Medcalf, who has been with the IU Health program since it’s inception. “During my time of addiction I was in the emergency department a lot. There was no follow up from a referral. If we’re not following up then it’s cyclical. We have to work with them to break down the barriers,” said Medcalf.

His advice to others struggling during this uncertain time: “Reach out. Reach out to a trusted loved one or mental health professional. Reach out and express your concerns. No one can help you if you don’t let them know you are struggling. It’s scary but there is power and strength in reaching out.”

The behavioral health hub offers 24/7 patient care via the virtual hub.


Drugs, alcohol, starvation, self-mutilation – he did it all and lived to tell about it - Spencer Medcalf uses his life experience to help others as IU Health expands virtual care for addiction and mental health treatment.

Addiction therapist: “Recovery is about thinking it is possible” - She isn’t the kind of therapist who feels she needs to experience it to understand it. But Trisha Palencer, Director of the IU Health West Addiction Treatment Recovery Center has walked the road to recovery. During the COVID-19 pandemic the center continues serving patients for addiction services and taking new patients via telehealth.

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