A Rising Despair
Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 29, 2017
New mental health figures compiled by researchers are pretty staggering.
A new study of Americans’ use of drugs and alcohol, and the rising number of suicides suggests that more than 1.6 million will die over the next 10 years.
The report, commissioned by the Trust for America’s Health and the Well Being Trust, is prompting mental health groups to call for national strategies for treatment — and more importantly — to work back from the results to how communities might look at underlying causal conditions. Links to the report, called Pain in the Nation: The Drug, Alcohol and Suicide Crises and the Need for a National Resilience Strategy are here and here.
Other than the talk over the last year about opioids, this kind of mental health crisis escapes serious attention from our public policy-makers. Even with the rising deaths from opioids, the president has yet to act to fully declare a national emergency that will release substantial funds to address the issue. And even then, the attention is more on policing (including border security!) rather than either treatment or programs aimed at the causes of anguish.
But the numbers themselves demand attention. The report outlines a 60% increase over the previous decade, and it breaks down the numbers by state, confirming the biggest dangers facing New Mexico and West Virginia.
The report calls for a national resilience strategy to transform conditions that underlie the public health numbers. The Prevention Institute offers an infographic here that outlines ways in which communities can devise local programs to help people cope and thrive through better mental health programs. The Institute argues for programs that use social support, affordable housing and job opportunities, but does not discuss how to pay for them.
To create the report, researchers from the Berkeley Research Group examined deaths from 1999–2015 using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2015, New Mexico had the highest rate of drug, alcohol and suicide-related deaths at 77.4 per 100,000 residents. West Virginia was second with 67.4 deaths, though it saw the largest jump of all the states — more than three times the 22.1 it was in 1999.
More numbers: In 2015, there were 39.7 deaths per 100,000 U.S. residents because of drugs, alcohol and suicide compared with 23.1 in 1999 — an increase of 72%. That number could go up to 56 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2025, said the report. Drug overdose fatalities in the U.S. more than doubled from 1999 to 2015, from 6.9 per 100,000 residents in 1999 to 16.3 per 100,000 residents in 2015. That number could shoot up to 28.4 deaths per 100,000 residents by 2025.
“We see a connection among the three epidemics,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO of the Trust for America’s Health told USA Today. “They are all behavioral health-related — that is, they have a substance abuse or mental health diagnosis associated with them.”
Alcohol-induced deaths, such as those that are a result of alcohol-related liver diseases or alcohol poisoning, increased by 47% from 7.0 to 10.3 per 100,000 residents. Suicides rose from 10.5 to 13.8 per 100,000 residents, an increase of 31%.
Deaths from addiction and suicide “are part of a larger malady that we’re facing,” Tom Hill, vice president of addiction and recovery at the National Council for Behavioral Health told USA Today. “Psychic pain drives a lot of this,” said Hill, who has been in recovery from drugs and alcohol for about 25 years. “Traumas and histories of trauma drive a lot of this.”
USA Today quoted Indra Cidambi, a New Jersey addiction doctor and psychiatrist, as linking psychic stress and economics. The recession led to more chaotic lifestyles, frayed relationships and people who “just kind of gave up hope. They didn’t have any purpose in life and wanted to numb the feeling,” said Cidambi. “I’m hoping now that once the economy picks up, we should see some change in the epidemic, and (people) are going to start feeling self-worth,” she said.
In 2016, 44.7 million Americans 18 or older experienced a mental health issue, more than 20 million over the age of 12 had a substance abuse disorder, and 8.2 million adults experienced both, according to the report. Fewer than one in 10 people with substance use disorders and less than half with mental health issues received recommended treatment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
The professional prescription seems clear: The nation should be looking at more education about prescriptions, provide more flexible care and look at ways to maximize a sense of well-being from early age.
Translating those community-based strategies into tangible political action through a political system that considers all medical care as optional is more than difficult to imagine. I suppose the current Washington thinking would declare this pending tsunami of deaths as a series of local problems, curable only by tax breaks for corporations in hopes that the companies will create more jobs for Americans.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem to add up to a national strategy to fight despair.