USA: COVID-19 Could Accelerate ‘Deaths of Despair’

A new research report released by the Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians predicts the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate deaths of despair in the United States.

Economists Anne Case, Ph.D., and Angus Deaton, Ph.D coined the term “death of despair” which comprises deaths driven primarily by alcohol harm and drug overdoses, suicides, and liver disease. The United States has already been experiencing a rise in these types of deaths for a few years, specifically among young people, already before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country.

The new research report cites Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data showing that in 2018, there were 181,686 deaths of despair in the United States, which is 55 deaths per 100,000 people. The report finds that COVID-19 could result in an additional 154,037 deaths of despair in the worst case scenario and 27, 644 deaths in the best case scenario.

Recent scientific research also predicted mental health problems could increase for years to come due to COVID-19 and the physical distancing measures around the globe.

Risk factors for deaths of despair growing while mental health resources are lacking

According to public health experts, there are very troubling signs emerging in the United States which suggest that deaths of despair will rise as mental health will suffer among Americans due to the pandemic.

There’s more substance abuse, more overdoses, more domestic violence and neglect and abuse of children,” said Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services and head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), as per USA Today.

COVID-19 has led to physical distancing measures and self-isolation and disrupted people’s routines. Apart from the stress and anxiety of an unknown future, people are pressured by loneliness, or being at home for long periods and caring for children and older parents while balancing working from home. There’s added stress and anxiety with pay cuts and job loss due to the economic downturn.

The new report suggest virtual connectivity may not be enough to ease the rising levels of stress and anxiety.

A concerning trend has emerged in the United States as people are trying to cope with the new challenges by consuming alcohol. This exacerbates problems and specifically links to deaths of despair fueled by as alcohol intoxication, suicide and liver disease.

USA: Adults Turn to Alcohol to Cope With COVID-19

There are reports of more people seeking treatment for alcohol problems in regions where coronavirus has hit the hardest, including the Northeast of the United States. Addiction treatment centers report far higher call volumes and outpatient treatment which is now conducted via video. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation’s youth continuum reports intensive outpatient admissions soared 17% in March 2020 compared to 2019.

There’s a level of powerlessness with the economy, retirement funds, unemployment and trying to get unemployment checks,” said Doug Tieman, CEO of Caron Treatment Centers in Pennsylvania, as per USA Today.

Mental health professionals are calling for increased resources to be invested in mental health services to help people and communities cope with rising addiction and mental health problems in the country. SAMHSA got $425 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act to boost mental health and addiction services. That compares with more than $100 billion for hospitals and is far from what is needed, according to experts.

SAMHSA confirms alcohol treatment essential medical service

A letter from SAMHSA has confirmed that mental health and substance use disorder treatment services are essential medical services.

The letter certifies agreement by SAMHSA and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, that the services provided in mental and substance use disorder treatment programs across the country are essential medical services and confirms the legitimacy of the need for personal protective equipment for people working in mental and substance use disorder treatment services.

Recommendations of the report

The new report by the Well Being Trust and the American Academy of Family Physicians states that the rise in deaths of despair is only a prediction but can be modified and changed if urgent action is taken immediately. Recommendations of the report include:

  • Finding employment for people,
  • Providing resources to ensure people are socially connected despite being physically distanced,
  • Integrate mental health and addiction support services into the COVID-19 response,
  • Provide people with facts about COVID-19 and mental health, regarding the impact, how to help and what to expect,
  • Offering a vision for the future which includes mental health as a central part of healthcare, and
  • Deliver timely, and evidence-based care and mental health support to those who need it.

Considering alcohol’s link with almost all deaths of despair, it is important that the U.S. federal, state and local governments work to address alcohol harm with effective policy solutions, such as out lined in the World Health Organization’s SAFER package.