Cornell's Sober House, a co-op dedicated to providing an environment for individuals committed to living alcohol and drug-free lives, and others address recovery during COVID-19.

Linbo Fan / Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell's Sober House, a co-op dedicated to providing an environment for individuals committed to living alcohol and drug-free lives, and others address recovery during COVID-19.

April 17, 2020

Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment and Recovery Moves Online

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As many forms of healthcare and addiction treatment move online to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, treatment for alcohol use disorder is no exception.

Dr. William Sonestuhl, advisor for the Cornell Sober House, is confident in the continued recovery of the students he advises. Residents of the Sober House have experienced struggles with substance use and want to live with other people who are also committed to not using alcohol and other substances.

However, he is more concerned about the wellbeing of students struggling with alcohol use disorder who have not yet sought treatment.

“It’s the ones we haven’t reached yet that we should be really concerned about,” Sonestuhl said.

Despite this concern, Sonestuhl is glad that many treatment options for gaining and maintaining recovery from alcohol used disorder are now available online.

“One of the great things is that a lot of clinicians are doing telemedicine for those seeking recovery or in recovery,” Sonestuhl said.

One of those clinicians now using Zoom is G.P. Zurenda, an Ithaca-based therapist whose work includes alcohol and drug counseling.

“One of the big things, as a clinician, is the need and ability to develop rapport with a patient, to be able to connect, to be able to go, ‘yes, this guy gets me and knows me,’” Zurenda said, who initially expressed concerns about the effectiveness of telemedicine. “There is the need to discern from non-verbal communication clues to what is going on with a person, that aren’t part of the verbal interaction.”

However, Zurenda has so far been impressed with the outcomes of transitioning care online for both existing and new patients.

“It’s easier to see and connect during online therapy sessions than I would have guessed, so I am happy about that,” said Zurenda.

In addition to one-on-one therapy, many people recovering from alcohol use disorder rely on group meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, for more social support. Many of these meetings have also moved online, including in the Ithaca area.

However, with this transition, there are some concerns concerning the quality of online options for addiction recovery.

“The big difference is that you can’t join hands in a circle at the end of the meeting and provide that kind of comfort, you have to do it virtually over Zoom events. What is also lacking is the immediacy of being in contact with others,” said Sonestuhl. “I’m impressed with what we can do with Zoom meetings, but it’s just not the same as sitting down face to face.”

In addition to the loss of wanted in-person contact, some Zoom AA meetings have experienced unwanted online social contact, in the form of “Zoombombing.”

“I have heard some reports of meetings being Zoombombed, but it seems like the platform and the meetings themselves are being very responsive to tighten up security,” Zurenda said.

According to Zurenda, security improvements for AA meetings have included the addition of passwords, restriction of access to microphones and screen sharing and taking turns hosting meetings.

Although talk, group and self-help therapy groups can move to Zoom meetings, in-patient care can be difficult to find as medical facilities shut down non-essential services.

“I had one client who needed rehab –– he had to go all the way to Georgia,” said Zurenda.

Some local facilities, including Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services, are continuing to admit people to in-patient treatment, but are doing so more slowly than they have in the past.

Despite the challenges of adapting to physical isolation and online treatment, Zurenda has been impressed by the resourcefulness of people in recovery.

“I have been impressed by how quickly self-help groups, who don’t have any professionals involved, to transition from face-to-face to online, and facilitate making recovery available not just to their old friends but as many people as they can,” said Zurenda.

Help can be found in the Ithaca area through Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services at carsny.org. Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.