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CityWatch: Alcoholism, anxiety and other personal battles: In New York City and beyond, people trade in-person support for remote alternatives

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Matt, a lifelong New Yorker who’s in Alcoholics Anonymous, keeps an eye peeled for personal anniversaries. One is set to arrive on May 19. 

“I will be four years sober then,” he said. 

If the COVID-19 lockdown is still in place then in the city as expected, he’ll mark another milestone—62 consecutive days of digital AA.

Since March 19, the 36-year-old Bronx firefighter has led a nightly meeting at 9 p.m. as a way to replace—and then some—his go-to weekly meeting held in a neighborhood church closed by the coronavirus. 

“It occurred to me that I could host meetings on Zoom,” said Matt, who knew videoconferencing from earlier work in marketing. He preferred using just his first name for this story. “Idle time is the devil’s playground. A lot of people have found comfort in that we now meet every night.” His plan: Keep up this schedule until the crisis passes.

Around the five boroughs and beyond, people have traded in-person support — 12-step programs for addiction to booze, drugs, sex and so on; group-therapy sessions; one-on-one counseling for anxiety, and so on — for remote alternatives. Support is virtual, whether via Zoom, ZM, +2.14% Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting or another platform — but the benefits are real. 

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Ask Dr. Andrew Merling, a clinical psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor in psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital. Since mid-March, his in-office sessions on West 58th Street in Manhattan have all shifted to being online or by phone. 

That includes a long-running weekly group session for nine men dealing with substance abuse. 

“I’d never used platforms like Zoom before,” Merling said. “I discouraged it. There can be distractions. I like to work with people in the same room, where you can get more cues and a closer connection.” 

Going remote, he added, “was an adjustment.” And an urgent and necessary one considering the toll of COVID-19 and the quarantine. Since the pandemic, one patient who’d been clean for about four months relapsed, one lost his job, while another got socked with a salary cut, he said.

“All these added stressors, plus the need to stay home and the isolation, are leading to more instability. Not just for substance abuse, but I’ve noticed, as you would imagine, more anxiety and depression,” he said. “I’m hearing things like, ‘I’m just really tempted to use at this point.’” 

The group dynamics reflect what’s happening all over the U.S., according to studies, including a recent KFF Health Tracking poll covering work and wellness. It showed that more than half of U.S. adults — 56% — report that coronavirus-related worry has caused them to experience at least one negative effect on their mental health and well-being, including problems such as increased alcohol use, or worsening chronic conditions. 

“Imagine if this crisis happened pre-internet,” said Merling, who is now three weeks into digital therapy sessions with Mount Sinai staffers on Friday nights to help them decompress.

When it comes to longtime patients, Merling said Zoom sessions have yielded unexpected benefits.

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“I’m seeing people in an environment that I’ve heard about for a long time,” he said. “It gives a different frame that’s kind of interesting. There have been situations where I’ve said, ‘Oh, I hear your wife in the background. Would you be OK introducing her to me?’ Now I can put a face to a name. Having been forced to use these platforms has been helpful. It has evolved me as a clinician.”

Such evolution is the new normal around New York City. “The pandemic has completely redefined the treatment landscape,” said licensed clinical social worker John McGeehan, who founded The Dorm, an outpatient treatment center that serves 60 young adults ages 18-35 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side for issues related to mental health, substance abuse, health and wellness, and academic guidance. It also has a location for 20 clients in Washington, D.C. 

Since March 17, programs have gone “from face-to-face to fully digital,” McGeehan said. “We’ve migrated 900 sessions a week, between our New York and D.C. offices, online, and did that overnight. It is a huge transition.”

Staffers at The Dorm, before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Courtesy The Dorm

Amid massive shifts, there is constancy. At the Dorm’s Upper West Side location, the physical space has been designed to provide what the director called a “clubhouse feel.” (Cue the pool table.) 

To keep that vibe in an online setting, they’ve created a virtual clubhouse that’s open all day and monitored by staff. 

“Activities include everything from talent shows to pet cameos to you name it,” McGeehan said. “People are hungry for social connection. This helps keep the community spirit alive.”

Community manifests in various ways. In May, for every virtual mental health treatment session at the Dorm, the organization is donating $1 to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of NYC (NAMI-NYC), which has beefed up its own education, support and advocacy programs to meet the needs of New Yorkers impacted by the coronavirus. 

Online video support groups and programs have expanded as NAMI-NYC Helpline calls about depression, grief, anxiety, panic attacks and other conditions are up 60% since mid-March. 

NAMI-NYC Engagement Coordinator Tanya Lalwani said she has experienced “a sense of urgency in calls that wasn’t there before the pandemic. One caller recently asked ‘Is the world ending?’ This is such a big threat people don’t know what to make of it.” 

Ambiguity has reverberated at the Center for Anxiety, located near Columbus Circle in Manhattan and in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Calls are up “significantly,” according to founder and director Dr. David H. Rosmarin, an assistant professor in the psychiatry department at Harvard. 

“People are increasingly seeking help and needing guidance. They’re plagued by anxiety. They can’t sleep. They’re having panic attacks for the first time. They need to connect and talk about it. Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation,” Rosmarin added. “We’re social beings. That’s just the way we are. We have needs to connect with other people.” 

Connection, it turns out, can come wherever and however. It transcends location.

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The Inter-Group Association of AA of New York, an information exchange center and facilitator for AA groups in the greater New York City area, is currently facilitating more than 2,500 remote meetings a week that chapters can use free of charge. Since AA venues were forced to close, the group noted on May 1 that it “has enabled members from 132 countries to pass through the virtual doors of AA meetings 419,710 times.”

In the Bronx, Matt can attest to that. He regards his sobriety as “kind of like going over the rainbow to find the pot of gold. Your very next assignment is to return to the other side and find somebody else who can find the pot of gold too.”

Those somebodies, who began as six people on March 19 after Matt spread the word about the meeting through friends and social media, have already grown 10-fold. They’ve included New Yorkers and out-of-towners in Ohio, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Colorado, California and Arizona, as well as Trinidad and Tobago and Canada. “It’s gone international,” Matt said.