US 'Deaths of Despair' From COVID-19 Could Top 75,000, Experts Warn

Megan Brooks

May 08, 2020

An additional 75,000 Americans could die by suicide, drugs, or alcohol abuse because of the COVID-19 pandemic, projections from a new national report released today suggest.

The number of "deaths of despair" could be even higher if the country fails to take bold action to address the mental health toll of unemployment, isolation, and uncertainty, according to the report from the Well Being Trust (WBT) and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.

"If nothing happens and nothing improves ― ie, the worst-case scenario ― we could be looking at an additional 150,000 people who died who didn't have to," Benjamin Miller, PsyD, WBT chief strategy officer, told Medscape Medical News.

"We can prevent these deaths. We know how and have a bevy of evidence-based solutions. We lack the resources to really stand this up in a way that can most positively impact communities," Miller added.

Slow Recovery, Quick Recovery Scenarios

For the analysis, Miller and colleagues combined information on the number of deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs from 2018 as a baseline (n = 181,686). They projected levels of unemployment from 2020 to 2029 and then used economic modeling to estimate the additional annual number of deaths.

Across nine different scenarios, the number of additional deaths of despair range from 27,644 (quick recovery, smallest impact of unemployment on suicide, alcohol-, and drug-related deaths) to 154,037 (slow recovery, greatest impact of unemployment on these deaths), with 75,000 being the most likely.

The report offers several policy solutions to prevent a surge in "avoidable" deaths. They include finding ways to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and provide meaningful work to those who are out of work. Making access to care easier and fully integrating mental health and addiction care into primary and clinical care as well as community settings are also essential.

These solutions should also serve to prevent drug and alcohol misuse and suicide in normal times, the researchers say.

Miller believes it's time for the federal government to fully support a framework of excellence in mental health and well-being and to invest in mental health now.

"In the short term, we need at least $48 billion to keep the lights on in the current system," he said.

"This is because 92.6% of mental health organizations have had to reduce their operations in some capacity, 61.8% have had to completely close at least one program, and 31.0% have had to turn away patients. This scenario is not optimal for people who will need a system to help them right now during a crisis," he added.

In the long term, $150 billion is needed for a "massive structural redesign" of the US mental health system, Miller said.

"This means bringing mental health fully into all facets of our healthcare system, of our community. It will take robust investment in creating new mechanisms for care ― those that are team-based, create a new type of workforce to deliver that care, and one that is seamless across clinical and community settings," said Miller.

The full report is available online.

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