Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is projected that there will be an increase in "deaths of despair", which entails suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning, and alcoholic liver disease. It is expected that as many as 75,000 more people will be impacted by drug or alcohol misuse and suicide, according to new research released by Well Being Trust (WBT) and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.

It is noted that if the country fails to invest in solutions to help heal the nation's isolation, pain, and suffering, the collective impact of COVID-19 will have even more devastating results.

There are three factors that are already contributing to the exacerbation of deaths of despair:

  1. Unprecedented economic failure (consisting of massive unemployment);
  2. Mandated social isolation for months with possible continued isolation for years;
  3. The uncertainty caused by sudden emergence of a microbe (COVID-19)

"Undeniably policymakers must place a large focus on mitigating the effects of COVID. However, if the country continues to ignore the collateral damage - specifically our nation's mental health - we will not come out of this stronger," said Benjamin Miller, PsyD, chief strategy officer at WBT. "If we work to put in place healthy community conditions, good healthcare coverage, and inclusive policies, we can improve mental health and well-being. With all the other COVID-related investments, it's time for the federal government to fully support a framework for excellence in mental health and well-being and invest in mental health now."

In 2017, the overall death rate from deaths of despair (45.8 people per 100,000) outpaced lung cancer, stroke and car crashes when adjusting for age, according to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That is an increase of more than 180 percent since 2000.

Death of despair, driven primarily by heart disease and an unprecedented epidemic of drug overdoses, has contributed to three years of consecutive reductions in average life expectancy. The United States is the only wealthy nation in modern times to exhibit such a reversal, according to the CDC and "Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism", a book by Princeton faculty members Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

despairThe completed study combined information on deaths of despair from 2018 (used as a baseline) and projected levels of unemployment from 2020 to 2029 to  estimate the additional annual number of deaths based on economic modeling. As depicted in the chart, across nine different scenarios, additional deaths of despair ranged from 27,644 (quick recovery) to 154,037 (slow recovery), with 75,000 being the most likely. Taking into consideration the negative impact of isolation on individuals, and the continued uncertainty, a higher estimate may be more accurate.

As with so many things in life, recognizing a problem is the first step to solving it. If you notice a friend or family member struggling with mental health or substance use in the coming days, week and months, make sure you reach out to them and to community resources for assistance. Bear River Health is only a call away, we can be a guide in these distressing times.