As the United States death toll from COVID-19 continues to rise, attention is turning to a hidden epidemic causing even more indirect fatalities from the virus. New data from Well Being Trust forecasts that a further 75,000 Americans will suffer deaths of despair in response to the pandemic. This troubling figure draws attention to the need for a better understanding of how coronavirus is affecting those with addiction and other mental health conditions.
What Are Deaths of Despair?
Deaths of despair are those caused by suicide, drug-related disease and drug overdoses. The phenomenon was first observed by Case and Deaton in a 2015 paper. Although this initial demographic is quite narrow, further research has revealed the issue affects people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
Frighteningly, the mortality rate from deaths of despair outstrips other causes of death by an overwhelming margin in the 20th century. The last time the suicide rate was this high was in 1938, and there are more alcohol-related deaths occurring than at any time before the 1910s. The primary driver for these deaths of despair has been the expanding opioid crisis, which kills more than 90 people each day.
With the rapid spread of COVID-19, there is now another factor contributing to the opioid crisis and abuse of other substances. The combination of factors is leading to more people dying of despair as their lives are upended by the virus.
How COVID-19 Is Driving Deaths of Despair
The majority of people are experiencing distress in the wake of the pandemic. A poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that 72% of Americans report their lives being disrupted “some” or “a lot” by the outbreak, leaving most of the population with symptoms of anxiety and depression they may not have experienced before. Those with preexisting anxiety and depression are likely to experience an increase in symptoms, which may be mild or severe depending on the individual and their circumstances.
This issue is especially problematic for people with drug and alcohol addiction. Mental health problems and substance abuse have a comorbidity rate around 50%, and when the symptoms of one condition worsen, so do the symptoms of the other. This can lock people into a spiral, ultimately leading to deaths of despair.
Addiction and Deaths of Despair
Self-medicating feelings of anxiety and depression related to COVID-19 is an unfortunately common form of unhealthy coping. Although drinking or using drugs may temporarily numb unwanted feelings, substance abuse inevitably makes mental health symptoms worse in the long run and comes with a long list of other health effects. Eventually, uncontrolled addiction may lead to overdose, one of the most common deaths of despair. Here are three ways coronavirus is causing people to overdose on drugs and alcohol.
Being bored is a common driver for addiction, and many more people with substance abuse problems have more time on their hands due to lockdown and social distancing measures. When the opportunities for entertainment and engagement dwindle, it is tempting to produce an altered state of mind to alleviate boredom. It is much easier to erase boredom with a substance than it is to create your own entertainment.
2. Lack of Structure
Regular work and school schedules often provide people with the motivation they need to steer clear of substance abuse. When everything is centered around keeping your job or getting decent grades, you have routines in place that make it harder to abuse a substance. With increasing unemployment and the state of education in flux, it’s easy for drug and alcohol use to become part of a new, unhealthy set of habits that can lead to overdose down the line.
3. Lack of Accountability
In this time of unprecedented isolation, many people are unable to interface with friends and family the way they normally do. Social distancing measures make it easier to lie to others about drug and alcohol use and may prevent people from accessing the support groups they would normally rely on to create external accountability. Isolation also increases the risk that someone who overdoses will not get the medical attention they need to survive.
How COVID-19 Increases the Risk of Suicide
While the coronavirus increases substance abuse and therefore the risk of unintentional overdose, suicide is another source for deaths of despair. For people at risk of suicide, isolation is extremely dangerous. Being cut off from normal avenues of support can increase hopelessness and cause a person to lose sight of all the reasons they have to live.
Unemployment suicides are also an immense risk during this time of economic instability. Losing a job while there is no end in sight to rising unemployment is terrifying, and people who don’t have a clear vision of their future are at greater risk of dying by suicide. Job loss increases feelings of self-doubt, depression and anxiety. The combination of these circumstances can prove too much for people who don’t seek treatment for their mental health. If suicidal ideation is present along with substance abuse, the danger is even greater.
Why Addiction Treatment Is Essential
Should you enroll in an addiction treatment program during COVID-19? Here are some factors to consider:
- A high-risk population: Substance abuse harms the body in ways that may make it easier to contract COVID-19 and worsen the symptoms if you do get it.
- Dangerous withdrawal: Attempting at-home withdrawal is never a good idea, but doing so when isolated from others is even more dangerous. Additionally, the extra burden of COVID-19 on the healthcare system will make it much more difficult to get treatment if withdrawal goes wrong.
- A need for structure: Whether you choose inpatient or outpatient treatment, an addiction recovery program can help restore much-needed structure to your life to allow you to overcome substance abuse.
Gateway Is Here for You, for Life
If you or a loved one are experiencing significant distress stemming from COVID-19 while struggling with addiction, it’s more important than ever to seek out support and treatment. Gateway Foundation’s doors are open and we are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as they are released.
Our programs and services, including residential treatment, are fully operational to ensure clients have access to the level of care they need. Gateway is committed to your health and safety, and we urge you not to delay treatment due to the coronavirus. If you or a loved one is seeking treatment please fill out our contact form or call 877-505-4673 for more information about how Gateway is providing essential addiction treatment services safely.