Pandemic may lead to 75,000 deaths from suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, study says

Published: May. 8, 2020 at 6:15 PM EDT
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COVID-19 has directly claimed tens of thousands of U.S. lives, but conditions stemming from the novel coronavirus — rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future — could lead to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide, new research suggests.

that deaths from those causes are known as "deaths of despair," and the pandemic may be exacerbating conditions that lead to them.

"Deaths of despair are tied to multiple factors, like unemployment, fear and dread, and isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were already an unprecedented number of deaths of despair. We wanted to estimate how this pandemic would change that number moving forward," said one of the study's authors, Benjamin Miller. He's chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust in Oakland, Calif.

According to the Well Being Trust, more lives had been lost to deaths of despair in 2017 than ever before.

"The primary response at the time was to look at the opioid epidemic, but that didn't even come close to cracking all of the issues of mental health-related to deaths of despair," Miller explained.

Many things can contribute to deaths of despair, including loneliness, isolation, a lack of belonging, limited access to affordable health care, systemic racism, trauma and financial concerns, like a lack of housing and food, according to the Well Being Trust.

The researchers pointed to several factors from the pandemic that could make problems worse:

- The potential for a serious, even deadly infection from a previously unknown microbe.

- An unprecedented economic shutdown.

- Skyrocketing unemployment.

- Months-long social isolation (mandated in many states), sometimes with no set end.

- Uncertainty about treatment and prevention strategies.

According to the researchers, with rapid recovery and the smallest impact on deaths of despair, the pandemic could lead to nearly 28,000 additional deaths of despair. However, a slow recovery combined with the greatest impact of unemployment could result in more than 150,000 deaths. Researchers believe that, most likely, the number of deaths will be somewhere in the middle with 75,000.

"The isolation is causing people to lose boundaries on their behaviors," Miller explained. CBS reported that with social norms set aside, some people are doing more things they wouldn't normally, such as day drinking. Such habits could be hard to break, which could lead to alcohol abuse.

"Miller pointed out that the study is a projection, and projections can be imprecise. Plus, estimates can change for the better when people start tackling the problems," CBS reported.

The researchers said the biggest way to help prevent some of these deaths is to get people back to work.

"People have to be working and we have to get people connected to other people," Miller said.

He said improving access to health care, including mental health care, is also significant.

Dr. Elie Aoun, vice chairman of the American Psychiatric Association's Council on Addiction Psychiatry, called the death projections shocking but not surprising.

"I've been seeing this in practices and my colleagues have been talking about it, too," he said.

Aoun said social isolation has more consequences for the many vulnerable patients who suffer from depression, anxiety and addiction.

"Addiction patients are relapsing, and a lot of patients who don't have drug use or alcohol problems are drinking more now, sometimes every day from 4 or 5 p.m., and they don't stop until they sleep," he said.

Aoun urged people to be kinder to themselves during this time.

"Don't worry so much about productivity. Be lazy. You don't have to learn another language. But you do have to give yourself permission to feel your emotions," Aoun said. "If you try to suppress your emotions or numb them with drugs or alcohol, it prevents you from processing your emotions and being able to move past them."

The report —

— was published May 8 by the Well Being Trust, and the Washington, D.C.-based Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.

Copyright 2020 WVLT News via CBS News. All rights reserved.