Pandemic could lead to higher rate of deaths of despair

Jun 26, 2020

According to the results of a new study, the total number of deaths from drug overdose, alcohol, and suicide combined was lower in 2018 compared to 2017, and are levelling out for the first time in 20 years. Specifically, the report highlights lower numbers of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, and heroin, which were reduced by 2%.

The big difference in overall deaths of despair in 2018 compared to the year before, the researchers said, was the lower numbers of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and to lesser extent heroin, which were down by 2%.

However, the report also found that deaths of despair increased in some minority communities over the same period. Alcohol-related deaths increased by 4% and suicides by 2%. The report found that while these numbers were similar to data obtained in 2017, they also reveal a 51% increase over the past decade.

In addition, the study has demonstrated that the death rate for synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl and carfentanil, increased by 10% in 2018 compared to data gathered in 2013. Deaths involving cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy and other prescription stimulants were also higher.

The study, carried out by the Well Being Trust (WBT) and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, stated that as many as 75,000 more people could die due to alcohol and drug use during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moreover, Caucasians were the only racial group that saw a decrease in overall deaths from drug overdoses in 2018. The numbers were increased for Native Americans, African Americans, Asians and Latinos, who all experienced increases in drug overdose deaths, the report found, with blacks and native American populations experiencing the largest rise.

“Blacks now have higher synthetic opioid overdose rates (10.7 per 100,000), cocaine overdose rates (8.8 per 100,000) and nearly the same overall drug-induced death rate (21.8 per 100,000) as whites, after decades of having substantially lower rates,”

from the WBT report

“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,” Benjamin F. Miller, chief strategy officer of WBT, stated in a press release. “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.”

Miller also mentioned that although the US has responded to the broader opioid epidemic, the broader addiction crisis has not been addressed effectively. The report offers recommendations for reducing deaths of despair, including reducing certain risk factors, promoting racial equality, and improving access to care.