Public health group Well Being Trust has conducted recent analysis that shows up to 75,000 Americans are at risk of dying from substance abuse or suicide as a direct result of covid-19.
With the economy continuing to suffer and unemployment increasing daily – a further 3 million American’s applied for unemployment this week – the Well Being Trust believes that the loneliness and stress from isolation is having a negative impact on our mental health, prompting fears of ‘deaths of despair’, and are prompting authorities at local, state and federal to help those that need support the most.
Dr. Benjamin F Miller, chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust said, “Unless we get comprehensive federal, state, and local resources behind improving access to high quality mental health treatments and community supports, I worry we’re likely to see things get far worse when it comes to substance misuse and suicide”.
The figures reported are a projection and Miller believes that our actions now could reduce the figures later. “We can change the numbers — the deaths have not happened yet. However, it is on us to take action now.”
With such high figures the group is asking for officials to change their approach to the unemployed, especially those who lost their work due to the pandemic. “Unemployment during the Great Recession was associated with an increase in suicide deaths and drug overdose deaths.”
Looking at data from previous recessions it is clear to see why the Well Being Trust are concerned. During the 2008 recession drug overdose and suicide rates increased after unemployment increased from 4.6 per cent in 2007 to 10 per cent in 2009 before plateauing at 3.5% in 2010.
Kevin Hassett, economic adviser at the White House believes the unemployment levels will continue to increase, “My guess right now is it’s going to be north of 16%, maybe as high as 20%. We’re looking at probably the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression.”
However there should be some new positions coming in the next few months, offering a relief to those looking for work. The government is keen to continue contact tracing and will be employing people to assist with this across the country.
The group’s report states, “Service can be a powerful antidote to isolation and despair.” It has also highlighted the need for mental health care and medical requirements to be changed, including privacy standards for technology to be eased.
Miller says, “This screams for an opportunity to examine what wasn’t working about mental health delivery prior to covid and examine new strategies to create a new and more integrated approach to mental health post-covid.”
He continues, “We should expand the use of evidence-based interventions through technology while we work to build the mental health system that we all deserve. We’re never going to have enough of the mental health workforce we need, so we should get creative with technology as well as who can deliver mental health care.”
Vermont has continuously seen high numbers of overdoses however they recently reported that they had their first decrease in opioid deaths since 2014. While deaths caused by opioid misuse had decreased by 58% those that also involved cocaine had increased.
Although it is difficult to predict if the numbers will continue to fall while we are struggling with the global crisis, Miller believes that the way Vermont has continued to work on tough, opioid strategies is clearly working. However, he also believes it is important to remember that there are many reasons why people turn to drugs, and these are issues that should also be looked at, as with the current restrictions in place, these could be amplified.
“We’ve responded to the opioid crisis in this country as if it was only about opioids when, in reality, it’s driven by deeper issues associated with mental health, addiction, pain and suffering. Without a clear framework for comprehensively addressing mental health and addiction, we will continue to tinker and play whack-a-mole looking for solutions.
The group also believes that local communities need to work together to help those that are continuing to struggle saying, “Virtual community may not be enough to hold off the impact of isolation and loneliness. And finally, uncertainty. The stress of uncertainty has a serious impact on the emergence and worsening of mental illness.”
“This is a novel virus with new and unanticipated results. Every day the science sheds light on new aspects and retracts initial ideas and hypotheses. These are unprecedented times, and uncertainty may lead to fear which may give way to dread.”
However the group does believe that things can change.
“The models we have created rely on the way it happened before. When our communities were faced with rising unemployment, social isolation and individual uncertainty the people suffered and that led to increased deaths of despair. It might be different. By taking stock of the current crisis, predicting the potential loss of life, and creatively deploying local community solutions, it may be possible to prevent the impending deaths of despair. We should not sit idly by, waiting for 75,000 more deaths of despair.”