Covid-19 pandemic could lead to unprecedented increase in deaths of despair

A new study published by researchers in the US warns that COVID-19 could lead to an unprecedented increase in ‘deaths of despair’ -- a term used to describe deaths due to drug or alcohol abuse and suicide. 

The new report, from the Well Being Trust and researchers affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians, estimates that tens of thousands of people will die over the next 10 years as society grapples with the economic and social fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report combines information on deaths of despair in 2018 (nearly 182,000 people) with projected unemployment levels from 2020 to 2029, and economic modeling.

It estimates that a very slow recovery combined with massive rates of unemployment could result in more than 150,000 deaths of despair over the next 10 years.  

Initial indications suggest a less catastrophic outcome, but the researchers believe it is very likely that we will see around  75,000 additional deaths. 

“[Social] isolation is causing people to lose boundaries on their behaviors," Benjamin Miller, one of the study authors, told CBS News

For example, with social norms on the back burner, some people are doing things they wouldn't normally — like drinking in the middle of the day. If that becomes a habit during social isolation, it may be hard to break and could lead to alcohol abuse and possibly later health problems.

“One of the main things people should take away from this paper is that employment matters,” Miller said. “It matters for our economic livelihood, and for our mental and emotional health.”
The best way to combat deaths of despair, the researchers suggest,  is to supply people with effective mental health treatment and support resources.

“If COVID-19 has highlighted anything about our current delivery system, it’s that asking people to come to a clinic or a hospital is not always the best approach. Policies that support creative opportunities for care delivered at home, virtually or in-person will provide comfort and safety,” the report authors suggest.

It is also vitally important to reintegrate people into the workforce. "People have to be working and we have to get people connected to other people," Miller said. 

Xavier Symons is deputy editor of BioEdge 

This article is published by Xavier Symons and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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