COVID-19: First Year Saw Spikes In Substance Misuse And Suicide Deaths

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The Covid pandemic laid bare major deficiencies in the global health system
The Covid pandemic laid bare major deficiencies in the global health system

The rates of substance misuse and suicide deaths in the U.S. have steadily risen in recent years. But in 2020, the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. saw a dramatic spike in these deaths.

The Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and Well Being Trust released a report, "Pain in the Nation 2022." The study examined deaths in the U.S. from alcohol, drugs, and suicide and found a disturbing trend -- a 20% spike in all these deaths combined in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In total, 186,763 Americans died from substance misuse and suicide in 2020. That represents a 20% increase from the year prior. When the report began in 2017, there were only 55,403 deaths caused by substance misuse and suicide -- a more than threefold jump in three years.

"The story behind these data is beyond devastating and heartbreaking to those families who have suffered loss," said Dr. Benjamin Miller, President of Well Being Trust.

The only U.S. state, including D.C., that saw a steady or declining rate of substance-misuse and suicide-related deaths was New Hampshire. Two states broke their own records of 100 deaths from substance misuse or suicide per 100,000 residents in 2020 -- West Virginia and New Mexico.

Among alcohol-related deaths, 2020 saw an increase of 27% overall. Breaking that down, 49 states saw an increase in those deaths. Every single demographic group also saw an increase.

Still, there were populations where the increase in alcohol-related deaths was more substantial, including young adults, Native American and Alaskan Native communities, Asian communities overall, and the Midwest region.

Looking a drug misuse deaths, overall the death rate increased by 30% for 2020. Many of the deaths involved synthetic opioids and psychostimulants.

Only one demographic group saw a decline in drug misuse deaths -- people aged 75 and older. Groups with a notable increase in drug-misuse deaths were communities of color, children, and young adults between 18-34. The South and West regions of the U.S. also saw increases.

The report found that the rate of suicide deaths declined by 3% in 2020. However, that drop was not consistent among all demographic groups. Specifically, Black, Native American, and Latin American people and communities saw notable increases in suicides in 2020.

Suicide rates also rose sharply among children and young adults. The only group that saw a decline in suicides were adults between the ages of 35 and 74.

"The data are shockingly clear — lives are at risk in every community due to alcohol, drugs, and suicide, and communities that experience disadvantage because of long-standing social, economic, and environmental inequities suffer a disproportionate impact," said J. Nadine Gracia, President and CEO of the Trust for America's Health.

The report highlights a few reasons for that 20% increase in substance misuse and suicide deaths in 2020. Heightened levels of anxiety, stress, and grief took their toll on the world during the pandemic. In the U.S., that toll manifested in heightened rates of substance misuse- and suicide-related deaths.

COVID-19 also disrupted people's finances. Though government stimulus helped, many people and whole families still felt financial hardships.

To fix the problems that contribute to a rise in these deaths, Miller says everyone needs to work together. That includes individuals, non-profits, and governments.

"This is not just the responsibility of the mental health and addiction field — but all our responsibility," Miller added.

US home sales boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, but saw a sharp drop in April 2022
US home sales boomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, but saw a sharp drop in April 2022
Photo: AFP / Stefani Reynolds

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