Doctors, scientists policymakers and even ‘non-experts’ posting on social media have argued that shuttering the health-care system to all non-emergency care risks sparking other public health crises from a spike in heart attacks and advanced cancer diagnoses, to so-called “deaths of despair.”
In some areas, a spike in suicides has already been recorded since the start of the outbreak. And now, a newly published paper released Friday has attempted to quantify deaths that might occur because of the mental-health ramifications of widespread economic chaos caused by the crisis. The research – which hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed – found the isolation, grief and economic hardship related to COVID-19 are conspiring to supercharge America’s already-burgeoning mental-health crisis, likely setting the stage for tens of thousands of suicides down the line.
Specifically, the researchers tabulated that as many as 75k additional “deaths of despair” could be caused by the outbreak and the economy-crushing measures implemented to stop the spreads. “Deaths of despair” typically refer to suicides and substance-abuse-related deaths, according to Bloomberg.
The research was carried out by the Well Being Trust and researchers affiliated with the American Academy of Family Physicians. One of the report’s authors said he hopes the research is eventually proven to be incorrect.
“I hope in 10 years people look back and say, ‘Wow, they way overestimated it,’” said John Westfall, director of the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, who co-wrote the report.
But the sizable spike in suicides, overdoses etc since the last major crisis (the financial crisis) is reason to be concerned.
Even as the American economy rebounded after the last recession, suicides and overdoses cut into Americans’ life expectancy. Mental health experts worry that the economic uncertainty and social isolation of the pandemic will make things worse at a time when the health care system is already overwhelmed. The suicide rate in the US has already been rising for two decades, and in 2018 hit its highest level since 1941, Bloomberg reported, citing a piece published by JAMA Psychiatry (a prestigious medical journal) back in April.
“There’s a paradox,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president of a Long Island-based nonprofit social services agency, the Family and Children’s Association. “Social isolation protects us from a contagious, life-threatening virus, but at the same time it puts people at risk for things that are the biggest killers in the United States: suicide, overdose and diseases related to alcohol abuse.”
Polls of life satisfaction taken since the outbreak began have reflected a rapid erosion as 33 million Americans have joined the unemployment rolls over the last months. NY Gov Andrew Cuomo said during a recent daily briefing that NY is seeing a spike in drug and alcohol abuse as people sit around all day with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
“One of the main things people should take away from this paper is that employment matters,” said Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer at the Well Being Trust and a clinical psychologist who worked on the paper. “It matters for our economic livelihood, and for our mental and emotional health.”
But of course the tremendous levels of financial uncertainty coupled with the unique characteristics of this crisis make it pretty much impossible to model – any research is really an educated guess, at best.
Still, the researchers believe it’s a useful warning, and something important for policy makers to keep in mind.
“It’s useful to have a wake-up call,” said Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Unemployment is going to have a very important impact on deaths of despair.”
Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer at the Well Being Trust and a clinical psychologist who worked on the paper, proposed several solutions that could be enacted to, uh, depress the number of suicides.
His proposed strategies including investing more resources in helping unemployed people find meaningful work, and/or training the armies of contact tracers that de Blasio has now promised to hire to spot people at risk of self-harm.