Florida Mom Who Lost Son to Fatal Overdose Says His Mental Health Was Hurt by Pandemic
“He lost his job, his income, that stability that he had from working every day,” says Michele Holbrook
The coronavirus pandemic has decimated much of the U.S., from the more than 107,000 dead from COVID-19 to the 42 million unemployed Americans. It’s also exposing the ongoing mental health and substance abuse crises in the country. A public health group has estimated that 75,000 Americans could die from drug or alcohol misuse related to COVID-19.
That, Michele Holbrook says, is what happened to her son Chandler Cook, who died in April of an accidental overdose at age 28. She’s now sharing his story in the hopes of helping others who are struggling during the pandemic, and to fight for better mental health support.
“Losing a child is one of the hardest things you can ever go through,” Holbrook, 54, tells PEOPLE. “During this pandemic, if I can help someone else then that is what I want to do.”
Cook had struggled with substance abuse since he was a teenager, after being prescribed OxyContin following shoulder surgery and becoming addicted. When he ran out of the medication, he started using heroin — and continued experimenting with drugs for years.
In 2016, Cook overdosed and went to rehab. But insurance would only pay for one month.
“That's not enough time at all,” Holbrook says. “These individuals need at least a good six months to a year to be clean and sober and to be in a real rehabilitation facility to start that process.”
When Cook came back, he continued to use drugs and was arrested in 2017 for selling marijuana to an undercover agent. He went to jail for six months before he was moved to a sober living house in Jacksonville, Florida, near Holbrook’s home on Amelia Island. It was “absolutely amazing” for him, she says. “He came out and was doing great, was clean and sober and had a full-time job.”
At the start of 2020, Cook was thriving at his job in the restaurant industry, where he had a strong support system. He had been sober for about a year and a half — “and then everything shut down,” Holbrook says.
“He lost his job, his income, that stability that he had from working every day and getting up and going to a structured environment, and he was in isolation,” she says. “Chandler had a depression that he couldn’t overcome.”
On April 21, Cook died of an accidental overdose.
“I saw him the Friday before he passed away, and as a mom, the one thing that I really beat myself up about is not giving him a hug,” Holbrook says. “I think as a mom, when you lose a child, you grieve, you sit there and say, what can I have done differently? But I knew he knew we all loved him and that he just couldn't fight it anymore. And I think a lot of it had to do with the pandemic and being in isolation.”
Holbrook is now sharing her son's story to show why mental health, and help for those suffering from substance abuse, needs to be as much of a priority as any other illness. She has neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that causes tumors to form on nerve tissue, and she recognizes the amount of work needed to treat her illness. What she doesn’t understand is why mental health is denied the same attention.
“People don’t think it’s a disease, but I know firsthand from seeing Chandler that it is. It’s a disease, just like my disease,” she says. “If I don't take care of myself or if I don't see my doctors then it is either going to kill me or I am going to be severely sick with tumors. It's the same way with addiction. If they don't go to the doctor that they need, whether it's going to going to see a counselor or going to their Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, then they are going to die from this disease.”
Holbrook thinks that AA and NA meetings should have been considered “essential” during the pandemic.
“Yes, you can do them by Zoom, but how many of these individuals do you think are going to sit and do this or have access to a computer or internet?” she says. “To me, there’s ways to social distance. You can sit six feet apart and wear a mask and sit outside. Put more programs in place where they can go and be part of something that they really need.”
She also wants insurance companies to “step up and pay for longer rehabilitation services,” to provide the time needed for people to fully recover.
Holbrook says that this advocacy work — which she’s doing with the nonprofit Kids Have Hope — is helping her grieve, along with her faith.
“Chandler was baptized a couple of years ago, so I know he’s sitting at the feet of Jesus. I know I’m going to see him one day,” she says. “I’m not going to lie and say that there aren’t mornings that I don’t want to put the covers over my head and lay there, but I know I need to get up and put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”
And she urges people whose family members are struggling with substance abuse and mental health to “fight hard for them.”
“Get in their face and find out what they need. I firmly believe in tough love and I’ve done the tough love — I’ve cried and I’ve screamed. You name it and I’ve done it,” she says. "Chandler was an amazing young man, but he couldn’t fight that fight on his own, unfortunately.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please contact the SAMHSA substance abuse helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. And if you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.