Story at a glance
- A study analyzes death rates due to suicides and substance abuse during the Great Recession to extrapolate similar "deaths of despair."
- Unemployment and a fragile economy are some of the leading factors.
A new report suggests that the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating a mental health crisis in the country that could contribute to rising suicide rates and substance abuse related deaths.
The report, from the Well Being Trust and researchers affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians, estimates that tens of thousands of people will die over the next 10 years due to "deaths of despair," defined as deaths related to drug, alcohol and suicide.
Researchers estimated that the increased number of deaths could range from 27,644 — provided a fairly quick national recovery following the pandemic — to 154,037 if there is a slow recovery, with the average being around 68,000 deaths.
"Given the extraordinary uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and its effect on the economy, any projection is imprecise," the report notes. "The goal is to offer a range in the number of additional deaths of despair over the next decade attributable to the rise in unemployment, isolation, and uncertainty. The analysis builds on three sets of assumptions regarding (a) the economy, (b) the relationship between deaths of despair and unemployment, and (c) the geographic variation of the impact."
One of the key features of the pandemic is record-high unemployment. To measure its potential impact, the study used an existing correlation between unemployment rates and suicide rates documented during the Great Recession of 2008. This previous data showcased a 1 percentage point increase in unemployment rates corresponding to increases in suicide rates by approximately 1 to 1.6 percentage points.
With this relationship in mind, the deaths of despair as a result of the coronavirus look increasingly likely. On Friday, the U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent in April after a struggling 4.4 percent in March, and recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) records approximately 21.4 million job losses since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., which forced many businesses to shutter in an effort to enforce social distancing.
“One of the main things people should take away from this paper is that employment matters,” Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer at the Well Being Trust and one of the authors of the paper, told Bloomberg. “It matters for our economic livelihood, and for our mental and emotional health.”
Within deaths of despair related to unemployment, some demographics suffer more than others. The report notes other underlying causes that field deaths of despair in unstable financial times, such as social and individual level factors, systemic inequalities, subpar health care systems — namely a “lack of culturally and linguistically competent care” — as well as community conditions like systemically pervasive racism embedded in education, income and housing.
Racial disparities illustrate these underlying factors. The report documents that across all demographics, deaths of despair are most commonly seen among 55 to 64 year-olds, non-Hispanics, and American Indians or Alaskan Natives.
Native American tribes recently went to court to secure funding from Congress’s relief bill, and tribal health care centers have been continually undersupplied as the virus spreads through reservations.
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The best way to combat deaths of despair for all people rests on several pillars, the researchers note: supply people with mental health treatment and support resources.
“If COVID-19 has highlighted anything about our current delivery system, it’s that asking people to come to a clinic or a hospital is not always the best approach. Policies that support creative opportunities for care delivered at home, virtually or in-person will provide comfort and safety,” the report authors suggest.
Additionally, while the report stresses the importance of reintroducing unemployed people to work and human connectivity, it does not advocate for a premature reopening of the economy.
“This report is not a call to suddenly reopen the country,” it explains. “We need to abide by good science, and make sure that testing and contact tracing is occurring at adequate levels to assure that it is safe to open up...Policies that maintain infection control while addressing the mental health and addiction needs of the people will balance the impact of COVID-19 across all sectors.”
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