KEY POINTS

  • Over 150,000 Americans may experience "deaths of despair"
  • Experts said mental health must also be given focus to prevent this crisis
  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration set aside $40 million for suicide prevention efforts

The long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States could result in over 150,000 "deaths of despair," as people turn to alcohol and drugs, or descend into depression and have suicidal thoughts, because of social isolation, job losses and financial instability, a new research has warned.

"More Americans could lose their lives to deaths of despair, deaths due to drug, alcohol, and suicide, if we do not do something immediately," the study published by Well Being Trust underscored. "Deaths of despair have been on the rise for the last decade, and in the context of COVID-19, deaths of despair should be seen as the epidemic within the pandemic."

Researchers said the estimated deaths of despair could cross to 154,037 if the nation's economic recovery is slow and 27,644 if the U.S. can quickly bounce back from the downturn.

Yet data from the Department of Health and Human Services' National Survey on Drug Use and Health cited over 57.8 million Americans are living with mental health and substance disorder issues as of 2018, two years before the pandemic.

Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, the head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration of the Department of Health and Human Services, said the signs of mental health troubles are everywhere, as cases of substance abuse, overdose, domestic violence, and child abuse are increasing. Suicide is also the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

"The impetus is COVID-19, but the need was there before and it's just been increased by what's happened as a result of the virus," the assistant secretary said.

Social distancing measures to stop the spread of the virus have led to the inaccessibility of many health care programs, posing risks of acute withdrawals and relapse for mental health patients.

depression-824998_1920 More focus must be given to mental health to prevent a "deaths of despair" in this pandemic, experts said. Photo: Pixabay

Therefore, the Well Being Trust recommended increasing focus on mental health services "to prevent a disastrous wave of deaths of despair” amid the pandemic. McCance-Katz confirmed her agency received a $40-million grant program in May, which will be channeled through suicide prevention efforts.

The study authors, however, noted most economists believe the projections from the 2008 Great Recession has been worse than coronavirus’ effects. At that time, digital social connections, including telemedicine and online consultations with therapists, were just beginning to flourish. Thus, the experts reiterated the numbers in their research are just estimates.