The report — Projected Deaths of Despair During the Coronavirus Recession — was published May 8 by the Well Being Trust, and the Washington, D.C.-based Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.
COVID-19 has directly claimed tens of thousands of U.S. lives, but conditions stemming from the novel coronavirus — rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future — could lead to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide, new research suggests.
Deaths from these causes are known as “deaths of despair.” And the COVID-19 pandemic may be accelerating conditions that lead to such deaths.
“Deaths of despair are tied to multiple factors, like unemployment, fear and dread, and isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were already an unprecedented number of deaths of despair. We wanted to estimate how this pandemic would change that number moving forward,” said one of the study’s authors, Benjamin Miller. He’s chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust in Oakland, Calif.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Well Being Trust reported that more lives had been lost to deaths of despair in 2017 than ever before.
Many things can contribute to deaths of despair, including loneliness, isolation, a lack of belonging, limited access to affordable health care, systemic racism, trauma and financial concerns, like a lack of housing and food, according to the Well Being Trust.
The researchers pointed to several factors from the pandemic that could make problems worse:
The potential for a serious, even deadly infection from a previously unknown microbe.
An unprecedented economic shutdown.
Skyrocketing unemployment.Months-long social isolation (mandated in many states), sometimes with no set end.
Uncertainty about treatment and prevention strategies.
Miller pointed out that the study is a projection, and projections can be imprecise. Plus, estimates can change for the better when people start tackling the problems.
The researchers said the biggest way to help prevent some of these deaths is to get people back to work.
“People have to be working and we have to get people connected to other people,” Miller said.
Well Being Trust & The Robert Graham Center Analysis:
The COVID Pandemic Could Lead to 75,000 Additional Deaths from Alcohol and Drug Misuse and Suicide
Alongside the thousands of deaths from COVID-19, the growing epidemic of “deaths of despair” is increasing due to the pandemic—as many as 75,000 more people will die from 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.
The brief notes that if the country fails to invest in solutions that can help heal the nation’s isolation, pain, and suffering, the collective impact of COVID-19 will be even more devastating. Three factors, already at work, are exacerbating deaths of despair: unprecedented economic failure paired with massive unemployment, mandated social isolation for months and possible residual isolation for years, and uncertainty caused by the sudden emergence of a novel, previously unknown microbe.
“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 F. Miller, PsyD, chief strategy officer, 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.”
The study combined information on deaths of despair from 2018 as a baseline (n=181,686), projected levels of unemployment from 2020 to 2029 and then estimated the additional annual number of deaths based on economic modeling. Across nine different scenarios, the additional deaths of despair range from 27,644 (quick recovery, smallest impact of unemployment on deaths of despair) to 154,037 (slow recovery, greatest impact of unemployment on deaths of despair), with 75,000 being the most likely. When considering the negative impact of isolation and uncertainty, a higher estimate may be more accurate.