Report: COVID-19 Likely To Produce 75,000 ‘Deaths From Despair’ (Suicides, Substance Abuse)

OPINION | This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion.

Over 70,000 Americans have already died to the coronavirus, but that death toll might double in the wake of the pandemic.

According to CBS News, up to 75,000 Americans could take their own lives or die as a result of substance abuse as they face the growing despair of continued lockdowns and not being able to care for their families.

Benjamin Miller, the chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust in Oakland, Calif., led a study into how Americans could act in the face of “rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future.”

“Deaths of despair are tied to multiple factors, like unemployment, fear and dread, and isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was already an unprecedented number of deaths of despair. We wanted to estimate how this pandemic would change that number moving forward,” Miller said, summarizing his plan for the study.

According to Miller, 2017 was one of the worst years on record for “deaths of despair” as the opioid crisis reached its peak.

“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 said per CBS News.

Here’s more from the report:

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.

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

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While several states have offered hope in the form of plans to reopen their businesses and restaurants, these prospective reopenings are still some ways away and the lockdowns are taking their toll.

“The isolation is causing people to lose boundaries on their behaviors,” Miller shared, pointing to loneliness as an impactful factor. “People have to be working and we have to get people connected to other people.”

Dr. Elie Aoun, vice chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Addiction Psychiatry, said he was not surprised by the loss of life amid such a devastating pandemic.

“I’ve been seeing this in practices and my colleagues have been talking about it, too,” he said.

“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 also pointed to the uneasiness of those people under lockdown, unable to do anything.

“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.”

As CBS News reports, Miller similarly agreed.

“You have to be comfortable talking about how you feel. We have to be able to talk about the hard stuff,” Miller explained. “Ask family or friends, ‘Are you OK?’ I don’t know anyone who hasn’t had some sort of change because of this, so if the answer is always that everything is fine, maybe it’s not.”

President Trump predicted in the early weeks of the coronavirus that a number of Americans would be so bothered by the conditions of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns that they could resort to self-harm or substance abuse.

“You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said during a Fox News town hall as recently as March 21. “You’re going to lose people. You’re going to have suicides by the thousands.”

This claim, at the time, was widely criticized by Democrats and members of the media.

From ABC News—March 2020:

As some in President Donald Trump’s inner circle push for loosening social distancing guidelines amid economic fallout from the novel coronavirus outbreak, he has predicted “tremendous death” and “suicide by the thousands” if the country isn’t “opened for business” in a matter of weeks.

While public health officials warn that dropping social guidelines to boost the economy could quickly overload hospital systems, costing more money and more lives, the president has claimed several times this week that the number of suicides specifically would “definitely” be greater than the death toll from the virus itself as he pointed to people returning to work as a remedy.