Online digital recovery support services: An overview of the science and their potential to help individuals with substance use disorder during COVID-19 and beyond


Background: The COVID-19 pandemic and related social distancing public health recommendations will have indirect consequences for individuals with current and remitted substance use disorder (SUD). Not only will stressors increase risk for symptom exacerbation and/or relapse, but individuals will also have limited service access during this critical time. Individuals with SUD are using free, online digital recovery support services (D-RSS) that leverage peer-to-peer connection (i.e., social-online D-RSS) which simultaneously help these individuals to access support and adhere to public health guidelines. Barriers to SUD treatment and recovery support service access, however, are not unique to the COVID-19 epoch. The pandemic creates an opportunity to highlight problems that will persist beyond its immediate effects, and to offer potential solutions that might help address these long-standing, systemic issues. To help providers and other key stakeholders effectively support those interested in, or who might benefit from, participation in free, social-online D-RSS, this review outlines the following: 1) theories of expected therapeutic benefits from, and potential drawbacks of social-online D-RSS participation; 2) a typology that can be used to describe and classify D-RSS; 3) a D-RSS "case study" to illustrate how to apply the theory and typology; 4) what is known empirically about social-online D-RSS; and 5) whether and how to engage individuals with these online resources.

Method: Narrative review combining research and theory on both in-person recovery supports and social-online D-RSS.

Results: Studies examining in-person recovery support services, such as AA and other mutual-help organizations, combined with theory about how social-online D-RSS might confer benefit, suggest these digital supports may engage individuals with SUD and mobilize salutary change in similar ways. While people may use in-person and digital supports simultaneously, when comparing the two modalities, communication science and telemedicine group therapy data suggest that D-RSS may not provide the same magnitude of benefit as in-person services. D-RSS can be classified based on the a) type of service, b) type of platform, c) points of access, and d) organizations responsible for their delivery. Research has not yet rigorously tested the effectiveness of social-online D-RSS specifically, though existing data suggest that those who use these services generally find their participation to be helpful. Content analyses suggest that these services are likely to facilitate social support and unlikely to expose individuals to harmful situations.

Conclusions: When in-person treatment and recovery support services are limited, as is the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, expected therapeutic benefits and emerging data, taken together, suggest providers, mentors, and other community leaders may wish to refer individuals with current and remitted SUD to free, social-online D-RSS. Given the array of available services in the absence of best practice guidelines, we recommend that when making D-RSS referrals, stakeholders familiarize themselves with theorized benefits and drawbacks of participation, use a typology to describe and classify services, and integrate current empirical knowledge, while relying on trusted federal, academic, and national practice organization resource lists.

Last updated on 12/07/2020