COVID-19 has directly claimed tens of thousands of U.S. lives, but conditions stemming from the novel coronavirus — rampant unemployment, isolation and an uncertain future — could lead to 75,000 deaths from drug or alcohol abuse and suicide, new research suggests.
Deaths from these causes are known as “deaths of despair.” And the COVID-19 pandemic may be accelerating conditions that lead to such deaths.
“Deaths of despair are tied to multiple factors, like unemployment, fear and dread, and isolation. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were already an unprecedented number of deaths of despair. We wanted to estimate how this pandemic would change that number moving forward,” said one of the study’s authors, Benjamin Miller. He’s chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust in Oakland, Calif.
The study noted that despair can come from many factors, including isolation and lack of belonging as well as financial concerns like a lack of housing and food. With nothing but bad news coming down the wire from mainstream media sources about the skyrocketing unemployment and chances of this lockdown going on for far longer in various states, the despair is likely to grow faster.
The study went on to report that a rapid economic recovery may stem the tide of despair deaths, but not by much. Predictions still sit around 28,000 deaths. If the economic recovery is slow, CBS News reports that the deaths could go further than just 75,000:
But a very slow recovery combined with the greatest impact of unemployment could result in more than 150,000 deaths of despair, the study estimates. Researchers think somewhere in the middle is most likely, with 75,000 additional deaths.
“The isolation is causing people to lose boundaries on their behaviors,” Miller explained.
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.
Miller pointed out that the study is a projection, and projections can be imprecise. Plus, estimates can change for the better when people start tackling the problems.
The key, says Miller, is to get people back to work and soon.
“People have to be working and we have to get people connected to other people,” Miller said.