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High Risk At High Altitude: Why We Turn To Substances To Cope With Stress

Jan 18, 2021

It may be a new year, but the stresses and challenges from 2020 seem to be trickling into 2021. At the national level, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol by right-wing extremists. Locally, people continue to navigate the financial difficulties that have come along with the ongoing pandemic. It has been widely reported that alcohol has become one of the nation’s key coping mechanisms, with consumption rising sharply among adults.

Elizabeth Means is the executive director of A Way Out, an Aspen-based organization that serves the entire Roaring Fork Valley. It helps people with substance-use disorder, as well as the families affected by the disease. Means has seen first hand the toll the pandemic has taken in the valley’s substance use with the number of calls made to the organization. 

“We’ve seen an uptick last spring after the shutdown in April, we had an influx of calls like we’d never seen before,” she said.

Means estimates there has been a 20% increase in calls since over the last year. And that increase makes sense to Means because she explained it is “human nature” to find relief. 

“We tend to grab what’s easiest, whether it’s chocolate, ice cream, cigarettes, alcohol, what have you. We want to relieve discomfort.”

Moderation is one thing, but Means said it becomes a problem when a person’s thoughts are flooded with ways to get the next fix. She said procrastination can be another sign of a problem, as well as losing interest in activities someone might have once loved doing.

A Way Out provides free assistance to anyone who may need it, including help getting people into rehabilitation, or sober living, along with counseling services. The organization is for people with substance-use disorders, as well as family and friends affected by the disease.

Means spoke with Aspen Public Radio News Director Ariel Van Cleave as part of our mental health series “High Risk at High Altitude” about why we use drugs to manage stress.