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. The virus’s impact is causing widespread grief and feelings of isolation, sadness and hopelessness. These effects have led to “deaths of despair,” caused by suicide or substance use disorder.
The devastating impacts of COVID-19 have uprooted daily routines. Loss of routine, combined with grief, isolation and fear, can be detrimental to anyone. Those with existing mental health conditions and substance use disorders are especially vulnerable. A better understanding of how the coronavirus is affecting these individuals can help reduce deaths of despair, and several strategies can help alleviate feelings of despair and prevent death.
What Are Deaths of Despair?
Deaths of despair are those caused by suicide, drug-related disease and drug overdoses. Researchers first observed the phenomenon of dying from despair in midlife white non-Hispanic Americans, recording their observations in a 2015 article. Although this initial demographic is quite narrow, further research has revealed the issue affects people from all backgrounds and walks of life.
The mortality rate from deaths of despair outpaces other causes of death by an overwhelming margin. The last time the suicide rate was this high was in 1938, and more alcohol-related deaths are occurring than at any time before the 1910s. The primary driver for these deaths of despair has been the expanding opioid crisis, which kills over 90 people each day. Death from despair has become a prevalent concern in the modern age, and the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified its effects.
How COVID-19 Is Driving Deaths of Despair
COVID-19 is another factor contributing to the opioid crisis and use of other substances. The combination of factors is leading to more people dying of despair as the virus upends their lives. The majority of people are experiencing distress in the wake of the pandemic.
At the beginning of the pandemic, a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 72% of Americans felt COVID-19 disrupted their lives “some” or “a lot.” The virus has impacted everyday life in many ways. Social distancing and quarantine efforts have limited access to friends and family, cutting off mental health support networks. It has also limited access to healthy activities, like going to the gym or playing team sports, which contribute to physical and mental wellbeing. COVID-19 deaths have caused personal grief for many individuals, as well.
These disruptions are causing symptoms of anxiety and depression many have not 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 those with drug and alcohol addiction. Mental health problems and substance use disorders have a comorbidity rate of around 40%, and when the symptoms of one condition worsen, so do the symptoms of the other. This correlation can lock someone into a spiral, leading to despair-related death.
Addiction and Deaths of Despair
Self-medicating feelings of anxiety and depression related to COVID-19 is a common form of unhealthy coping. Although drinking or using drugs may numb unwanted feelings in the moment, substance use makes mental health symptoms worse in the long run and causes many other health effects. Over time, uncontrolled substance addictions can lead to overdose deaths, one of the most common deaths of despair. Here are three ways the coronavirus is causing people to overdose on drugs and alcohol.
Being bored is a common driver for addiction, and those with substance use disorders have too much 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.
Those in recovery from substance use disorders often rely on social activities to provide both a support network and a healthy cure for boredom. Such activities might include team sports, group hiking or camping trips, bowling or dining out. Many healthy social hobbies have not been available during the pandemic, which leads to a higher likelihood of relapse for those who have undergone treatment.
It’s important to find new, healthy activities to alleviate boredom during COVID-19. Instead of reaching for substances, people should try to discover socially distanced hobbies, such as biking, painting, cooking, sculpting or following exercise videos. Keeping boredom at bay can help reduce the odds of developing or relapsing into a substance use disorder.
2. Lack of Structure
Regular work and school schedules often provide the necessary motivation to steer clear of substances. When your priorities center around keeping your job or getting decent grades, you have routines in place that make it harder to use 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 behaviors that can lead to overdose down the line.
It’s a good idea to create as much daily structure as possible. Strategies might include setting an alarm for the morning, carving out time for school or work tasks or otherwise planning activities throughout the day. It may help to set daily or weekly goals, such as finishing projects.
3. Lack of Accountability
In this time of unprecedented isolation, many are unable to interface with friends and family how they used to. Social distancing measures make it easier to lie to others about drug and alcohol use. These measures can also prevent access to support groups those in recovery 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.
Individuals may find several ways to combat this issue. If possible, those with substance use disorders should try to live with friends or family instead of quarantining alone. They should also schedule as many socially distanced group activities as possible, such as regular video calls with those in their support network.
How COVID-19 Increases the Risk of Suicide
While the coronavirus increases substance use disorders and therefore the risk of unintentional overdose, suicide is another source for deaths of despair. For those at risk of suicide, isolation is 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. Those without 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 without mental health treatment. If suicidal ideation is present along with substance use disorder, the danger is even greater, which is one reason addiction treatment is necessary.
Why Addiction Treatment Is Essential
Addiction treatment can help reduce the risks of death by suicide or overdose for those with substance use disorders. If you’re wondering whether or not to seek treatment, consider these factors:
- Those with substance use disorders are high-risk for COVID-19: Substance use harms the body in ways that may make it easier to contract COVID-19 and worsen the symptoms if you do get it.
- Withdrawal while isolated is dangerous: 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 difficult to get treatment if withdrawal goes wrong.
- Treatment provides 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 use disorder.
Gateway Is Here for You, for Life
If you or a loved one are experiencing significant despair during COVID-19 while struggling with addiction, it’s more important than ever to seek out support and treatment. Consider Gateway Foundation — our doors are open, and we are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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 877-381-6538 for more information about how Gateway is providing safe, essential addiction treatment services.