Reed Alexander, Managing Content Editor, Retreat Behavioral Health

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Experts break down the top reasons why hundreds of thousands continue to die from these causes with every passing year.

In America, a quiet catastrophe is claiming tens of thousands of lives — and in spite of growing alarm, a recent report has found that the problem is only getting worse.

According to a new study released in March by two nonprofits — the Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust — the rate of deaths resulting from suicide, alcohol, or drug-related causes is escalating fast. Indeed, in 2017 (the most recent year data was collected in this study), 150,000 Americans died as a result of one of those causes.

Previously, more narrowly-defined data found that 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses alone in 2017, per a New York Times report, which named this cause of death the most common in the US for adults under age 50.

The new report paints a bleak picture of a nation encumbered by mental health and substance abuse issues that too often go ignored and unsolved.

Other key findings from the research include:

• The number of deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl skyrocketed 45% from 2016-2017.
• In 1999, just 4% of opioid deaths involved fentanyl and synthetic opioids. Eighteen years later, in 2017, that number was 38%.
• The fatal overdose rate involving synthetic opioids outpaced the rate for all other drugs in 2017, underscoring how much of a threat they have become.
• Blacks, Whites, and Americans ages 18-54 were the demographics hardest hit by synthetic opioids

A broken healthcare system

“Because this is now a decades’ old problem, it’s going to require decades of solutions that are more comprehensive and systemic than what we’ve brought forward today,” Benjamin Miller, a psychologist and Chief Strategy Officer for Well Being Trust, told Retreat in an interview.

Miller blamed, in part, a schism between mental health and substance abuse treatment that stems from prejudices toward people with a drug or alcohol problem.

It’s a supposition supported by data: For example, a 2018 poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that fewer than one in five Americans would be “willing to associate closely with someone who is addicted to prescription drugs as a friend, colleague, or neighbor.”

Nearly one in two (44%) of respondents admitted they believe that consistent misuse of opioids was indicative of someone who had “a lack of willpower or discipline,” and over 50% said they would be in favor of a “crackdown” on such individuals.

Other factors
Anna Lembke, the Medical Director for Addiction Medicine and an Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine, points to broader environmental factors that often go unrecognized as contributing to this crisis.

“I think the lack of meaningful work is really a huge factor,” Lembke told Retreat, pointing to an economy in which “manufacturing towns have crumbled in the face of globalization,” and millions of workers are at risk for displacement by automation.

It’s a theory underscored by past research, too. One National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly one in six (17%) unemployed workers suffered from drug and alcohol addiction — twice the rate for full-time workers — while another study from the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that every one percent increase in nationwide unemployment is correlated with a 3.6% uptick in the number of people who rush to hospital emergency rooms, in the throes of a life-threatening opioid overdose.

What role does social media play?
According to the experts interviewed for this article, the wired world in which we live often doesn’t help, either.

Indeed, online bullying has been known to incentivize hopeless victims to turn to suicide in a number of well-known cases. And, according to Molly May, Clinical Supervisor for mental health and substance abuse treatment at Retreat Behavioral Health, social media is a breeding ground that cultivates feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness by inherently encouraging us to compare ourselves to the images that others portray.

On social media, “everything is whitewashed, everything is better,” May speculated. “There’s this constant comparing that happens to people… (and) that leads to being really isolated.”

In 2018, a group of researchers set out to prove this theory, studying 143 University of Pennsylvania students who used social media.

At the conclusion of the research, students who were given restricted access to social media “showed significant reductions in loneliness and depression,” compared to those who had unfettered access during the course of the study.

“Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media…may lead to significant improvement in mental well-being,” the authors summarized.

Where we go from here
Without fresh strategies to drugs and mental illness, it is doubtful that future numbers will get better. In fact, some foreboding studies postulate that they’re only going to get worse in the near future.

In February 2019, a team of investigators from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Technology Assessment asked the question: What would happen in America “if no further reduction in the misuse of prescription opioids occurs in the coming years”?

What they found was disquieting indeed. By the year 2025, the researchers concluded, 700,000 people are expected to die from an opioid overdose.