Record Deaths From Suicide, Drugs, in Youth a 'National Tragedy'

Pauline Anderson

June 13, 2019

There has been a troubling increase in deaths by suicide and drug overdose among young adults, new research shows.

A new report released by two nonprofit organizations, Trust for America's Health and Well Being Trust, used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to analyze trends in deaths as a result of alcohol and drug misuse and suicide in those aged 18 to 34 years at the time of data collection.

It reveals a 108% increase in drug-related deaths from 2007 to 2017 in this population, with synthetic opioids proving particularly lethal. It also found that over that 10-year period, alcohol-induced deaths increased by 69% in this age group, while suicide deaths increased by 35%.

"The huge increase in the numbers of millennials being lost to substance misuse and suicide is a national tragedy," John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America's Health, said in a press release.

The authors note that millennials have a number of risk factors that increase their vulnerability to alcohol, drugs, and suicide: impulse control centers in the brain are not fully developed until the mid- to late-20s; young adults often take more risks in sexual and drug-use behaviors compared to older adults; and they make up the highest percentage of the US military, which can be a stressful profession.

Millennials also face high costs of postsecondary education and mounting student loan debt as well as a housing market that's largely out of reach.

In addition, millennials lack the protective factors that other age groups typically had, such as a supportive environment and financial safety nets. And few specialized prevention efforts target this age group.

The authors point out that more households headed by a millennial are living in poverty than other generations — 5.3 million vs 4.2 million for Generation X and 5 million for Baby Boomers as of 2016.

Auerbach also noted that the millennial generation comprises the largest proportion of the prison population.

"They are grappling with economic, health, and social challenges unique to their generation," he said. "There is a critical need for targeted programs that address millennials' health, well-being, and economic opportunity."

The report includes recommended interventions to help reduce "deaths of despair" among young adults. These include:

  • Ensuring that behavioral healthcare, including screenings, is a routine part of primary care and that everyone has access to such care.

  • Addressing barriers to treatment, such as lack of providers in rural areas and shortage of residential treatment programs for pregnant and postpartum women, through such things as greater use of telemedicine.

  • Increasing student loan repayment programs for practitioners working in underserved areas.

  • Having behavioral health screening and referral services readily available at all colleges, universities, technical training facilities, and reproductive health clinics.

  • Increasing health insurance and Medicaid coverage for medication-based treatments for substance misuse disorders.

  • Widening implementation of suicide prevention programs throughout the healthcare system. All hospitals should ensure that any patient in crisis is connected with behavioral health services in a timely manner.

  • States should implement pricing strategies to limit the consumption of alcohol by adolescents and young adults.

  • Prioritization by federal and state governments to implement the Family First Prevention Services Act, which supports prevention services for families in crisis to help reduce foster care placements.

  • Hospitals and birthing centers should screen new mothers for substance misuse disorders and postpartum mental health issues.

  • Creating drug and mental health courts in all states and federal districts.

  • Making transition programs that assist veterans in their return to civilian life readily available.

Trust for America's Health is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting optimal health. The Well Being Trust is a national foundation dedicated to advancing the mental, social, and spiritual health of the nation. The report was supported by grants from Well Being Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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