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A Record Number of Americans Died of Drugs, Alcohol or Suicide in 2019, Report Says

By Chelsea Cirruzzo |

May 18, 2021, at 12:01 a.m.

A record number of Americans died of drugs, alcohol or suicide in 2019, just a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report says.

More than 156,000 people died of these three causes according to new data out Tuesday by Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan nonprofit that works on preventing poor health outcomes, and the Well Being Trust, a national foundation with a focus on mental health. For their report, the groups looked at causes of death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics from 1999 through 2019. New Mexico and West Virginia saw the highest rate of age-adjusted deaths from all three factors in 2019, with 88 and 85.1 deaths of these causes per 100,000 deaths, respectively. By contrast, Texas had 32.7 deaths of these causes per 100,000 deaths and New York had 33.5 deaths of these causes per 100,000 deaths, the lowest rates in the country.

[ READ: Drug Overdose Deaths Growing Faster in Urban Communities ]

"The most important key takeaway here is we are dying earlier from preventable causes than we ever have before," Dr. Ben Miller, chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust, tells U.S. News. "The reason we are dying is what we call deaths of despair. And these are deaths of drug, alcohol and suicide. We continue to go in the wrong direction with trends."

Researchers found that alcohol and drug-related deaths increased in 2019 while suicide rates slightly decreased, but overall those three factors increased by 52% over the last decade. Drug-related deaths were up 5% in 2019 from the previous year, for a total of 74,511 deaths. While researchers say drug overdoses have been higher among white people over the years, drug-induced deaths increased dramatically in people of color in 2019.

Drug-related deaths were up 15% in Latino and Black people, 11% in American Indian people and 10% in people of Asian descent while drug-related deaths for white people only rose 2%. For the first since 2005, Black people died at a higher rate from drugs than white people in 2019, the report says.

Deaths related to the use of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, were up 16% in 2019 while deaths from cocaine use were up 8%. The most dramatic increase was in psychostimulants, such as ecstasy and methamphetamine, which were up 28%.

Meanwhile, natural/semisynthetic opioids, such as prescription opioids, and heroin overdoses decreased in 2019.

For the 10th year in a row, the alcohol-related death rate increased, up 4% from 2018, with 39,043 Americans dying of alcohol-related causes. Alcohol deaths were highest among American Indians at 31.9 deaths per 100,000 people, adults over the age of 55 at 28.3 deaths per 100,000 people and men with 15.2 deaths per 100,000 people. According to researchers, early data from 2020 shows that consumption rates continue to increase.

A survey published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in December 2020 found that 34.1% of participants reported binge-drinking during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic and 60% reported an increase in drinking. Participants who reported being stressed by the pandemic also reported consuming more drinks over a greater number of days. The survey was mainly answered by white women between the ages of 29 and 49.

Researchers in the report out Tuesday found the age-adjusted rate of suicide declined by 2% in 2019 from the year before, with suicide dropping from being the cause of 14.2 deaths to 13.9 deaths per 100,000 deaths. This was the first decline in suicide deaths since 2005.

Miller, who worked on the Well Being Trust and Trust for America's Health report, notes that the data is a year behind and data is still emerging to show the impacts of the pandemic. However, researchers say the pandemic caused considerable financial, emotional and physical stress on Americans, likely impacting the rates of alcohol and drug use as people turned to them to cope.

"COVID could potentially exacerbate some of these findings that we are describing in a report," Miller says.

Researchers from Tuesday's report point out that from March 2019 to March 2020, the number of calls to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Disaster Distress Helpline increased by 891%. They also point to a June 2020 CDC study that found that 13% of adults say they started to use or increase substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress.

Additionally, more than 90,000 people are predicted to have died of drug overdoses in the 12 months ending in September 2020, provisional data from the CDC shows, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

The report includes policy recommendations to decrease substance-use-related deaths, including expanding access to substance use prevention programs as well as mental health programs in schools and tailoring prevention and intervention programs per community.

Miller points out that it's important to note social and economic factors in those who died of drug, alcohol or suicide-related causes, such as a loss of job or losing a crucial social safety-net.

"So the policy recommendations must pay attention to the social, economic factors on mental health care," he says. In the more immediate future, he says the Biden administration has been working on reducing poverty which he says can decrease disparities. On Monday, the White House announced the details of the expanded child tax credit, equalling monthly payments for 39 million families for their children.

"I think to me like that is a very encouraging sign that we are moving in a different direction in terms of addressing some of those social and economic drivers of despair," Miller says. "But while we do that we also have to recognize that mental health is ... quite fragmented and disjointed and disconnected from the broader healthcare system." He says this means policy recommendations also need to focus on easing access to mental health care, such as offering it more widely in schools and in primary care practices.

"We need to minimize the barriers on you being able to get access to care and usually that's going to be accomplished by integrating mental health to those places in clinical settings and in community settings that people actually are," he says. The report also calls for limiting access to illicit opioids and psychstimimilates as well as lethal means of suicide. According to Miller, those lethal means are typically through the use of firearms, which he notes is a "politically charged topic." "It's not one that I think we should shy away from discussing," Miller says. "It's just the truth, if you look at the data, it's very clear that firearms play a significant role in suicide. … We have to confront issues around firearms." Miller also adds that reducing access to illicit opioids means people shouldn't face reduced care, particularly if they have a substance use disorder or are in pain. He praised the Biden administration's relaxation of restrictions on prescribing a drug used in medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction. Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko of New York has urged the White House to support congressional efforts to go even further by eliminating what is known as the X-waiver, a requirement needed to prescribe this drug.

Tags: suicide, drugs, prescription drugs, drug abuse, alcohol, death, public health

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