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N.M. App Provides Remote Addiction Support During COVID

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Overdose deaths have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC, and many people are delaying or avoiding medical care due to concerns about the virus. The New Mexico Crisis and Access Line decided to partner with Digital Therapeutics Group LLC so those living with addictions can get support online. Launched in November with funding from the Department of Human Services Behavioral Health Division, the 5-Actions Program is free and anonymous. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with the app’s creator, John Fitzgerald, to learn more about the program.

JOHN FITZGERALD: We call it a self-guided roadmap. So, it includes a variety of educational videos, all three to five minutes long, and a variety of self-assessment tools. And what's unique about the program is that comes with 24/7 phone support from the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line.

KUNM: The program is for those who live with addictions. Are we just talking about substance use and abuse, or other addictive behaviors as well?

FITZGERALD: All addictions, both substance and behavior. And the reason is that the brain doesn't know the difference. People struggle with a package of addictions; very few people have just one particular substance or behavior. And when I say "behavior," I mean sex, food, gambling, technology, [etc.]

KUNM: The COVID-19 pandemic is a unique time to launch an addictions treatment app. Can you speak to the need for it in this moment, both in content and design?

FITZGERALD: People can use these 24/7 from the safety of their home, and they're badly needed right now. The CDC released a report, and I think there were nationally 81,000 overdose deaths, which is the highest that they've ever reported. The next report that comes out is likely to have a higher rate of overdose deaths. The pandemic has absolutely increased addiction, mental health, and overdose deaths.

KUNM: New Mexico has had the highest alcohol-related death rate in the country for nearly 25 years, according to our Department of Health, at twice the national average. We also had the 12th highest rate of drug overdoses in 2019, mostly from opioids, with fentanyl deaths increasing over 90% in just a year. What is unique about our state when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction, and is the New Mexico-based 5-Actions Program localized to respond to our specific community?

FITZGERALD: Part of what makes New Mexico unique is that there's an incredible need and there's limited resources, which is creating a gap. There was a report that said that in 2018 there were about 70,000 people that were in substance abuse treatment but at that same time there were about 200,000 people living with substance use disorders, which created a gap of around 135,000 people. One of the primary drivers behind the 5-Actions program is to put something out there to meet the needs of that gap – those 135,000 people that aren't receiving any kind of treatment.

KUNM: Speaking of that gap, according to data from the Department of Health, Native Americans in New Mexico experience the highest rates of alcohol-related death. We also know that they're disproportionately unable to access high-speed internet based on the infrastructure here in New Mexico. And as more services have gone online over the pandemic, we know that that disparity has been exacerbated. So, what can those who don't have reliable online access do to seek support through the program?

FITZGERALD: It is one of the limitations of the program. These streaming videos require high speed internet. So, one of the opportunities is to look at social service agencies [or] libraries that may be able to host the site or provide access to people. One of the benefits of this program is that it's free to use by anybody in the state of New Mexico. For those who are much more in the trenches of reaching out to people that don't have access to high-speed internet, we're hoping that they could work with us to get the program out to those folks.

KUNM: I know you just recently launched the program here in New Mexico, but how's it going so far? Are people using it? Does it appear to be making an impact?

FITZGERALD: At this point, we're getting people signing up on a daily basis. I believe we're around 300 people. 300 people is a good start, but that's a small number compared to that gap that I talked about of 135,000. I think part of that is getting the word out that this is a program where we really want to provide something that people can be anonymous, they can go in and check it out without any risk.

KUNM: So, if someone listening feels like they want to learn more, or even give it a try, what are the next steps?

FITZGERALD: Go to the website, which is NM5Actions.com. They would put in their email, and that would enter them into a dashboard where they would have access to all of the videos [and] all of the screening tools. This program also provides support and help for families that are looking to help a loved one with substance use or behavioral addictions.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays, 5-7 p.m.). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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