Ethical Dilemmas Facing Substance Use Counselors During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Subst Abuse. 2023 Mar 11:17:11782218231158338. doi: 10.1177/11782218231158338. eCollection 2023.


Introduction: During the COVID-19 pandemic, substance use disorder (SUD) treatment settings experienced several abrupt changes, including decreased admissions, reduction in services, and modified requirements for medication for substance use disorder. While these changes were implemented to facilitate the maintenance of important treatment options, the ethical consequences of such changes remained unknown. The current study aimed to explore ethical issues related to COVID-19-related changes reported by counselors in SUD treatment facilities.

Method: From May to August 2020, we conducted 60 to 90 minutes in-depth interviews with 18 front-line staff in 1 residential and 1 outpatient treatment program, exploring issues drawn from the ethical principles of the national organization representing SUD counselors. Counselors volunteered to participate via phone or email, and participation was confidential. Interviews were conducted via videoconferencing. Topics included day-to-day experiences of ethical dilemmas in the workplace, particularly during the COVID-19 era. Interviews were recorded, transcribed, and checked for accuracy and a trained team of analysts then coded transcripts using thematic analysis.

Results: As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, SUD treatment programs quickly modified procedures to adhere to public health mandates while also continuing to offer care to clients. SUD counselors reported several ways their programs adapted new and creative procedures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. SUD counselors also identified several novel ethical dilemmas that occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, often resulting from the counselor balancing the needs for responding to public health mandates with providing services to clients. There were several ways that COVID-19 related changes resulted in therapeutic challenges for some clients, and the SUD counselors highlighted ways that changes resulted in more flexible services for other clients.

Conclusions: This study highlights the quick response to COVID-19 that occurred within SUD treatment. While these changes resulted in novel ethical dilemmas, they also offered more flexible and client-centered approaches to treatment.

Keywords: COVID-19; Substance use; ethics; treatment.

Publication types

  • Review