‘Staggering’ Number of Drug, Alcohol, Suicide Deaths Projected

Megan Brooks, November 21, 2017

A new report projects more than 1.6 million deaths due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide among people living in the United States during next decade (2016 to 2025). That would represent a 60% increase compared to the previous decade (2006 to 2015), which saw 1 million people die from drugs, alcohol, and suicide in the United States.

“These estimates may actually be conservative, as the rapid rise of heroin, fentanyl, and carfentanil use are pushing the numbers higher and faster, where deaths over the next decade could actually double to 2 million by the year 2025,” John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health (TFAH), said during a media briefing today.

“With the rise in deaths from drug overdoses, alcohol-induced causes, and suicide, it’s not surprising that life expectancy in the country decreased in 2015 for the first time in 2 decades,” said Auerbach said.

The report, Pain in the Nation: The Drug, Alcohol and Suicide Epidemics and the Need for a National Resilience Strategy, was released today by TFAH and Well Being Trust. It is based on an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted by the Berkeley Research Group.

The report notes that, at the state level, in 2005, death rates from drugs, alcohol, and suicide were more than 30 per 100,000 in 21 states and Washington, DC. For six states, death rates were above 40 per 100,000.

Fast forward to 2015, when the rates were higher than 30 per 100,000 in 48 states and Washington, DC. The rates were higher than 40 per 100,000 in 30 states, and they were higher than 60 per 100,000 in five states, including New Mexico, which was found to have the highest rate, at 77.4 per 100,000.

By 2025, 26 states could reach 60 deaths per 100,000 and two states (New Mexico and West Virginia) could reach rates of 100 deaths per 100,000, according to the report.

The report also notes that between 2000 and 2015, drug overdose deaths tripled; alcohol-induced deaths increased 37%, reaching a 35-year high in 2015; and suicide deaths increased by 28%.

As of 2015, more than 43 million Americans suffered a mental health problem, more than 20 million had a substance use disorder, and more than 8 million experienced both. These numbers are likely to be underestimates, owing to stigma and lack of available treatment. Only around 1 in 10 people with substance use disorders receive recommended treatment.

National Resilience Strategy

“These numbers are staggering, tragic and preventable,” Auerbach said in a statement. “There is a serious crisis across the nation, and solutions must go way beyond reducing the supply of opioids, other drugs, and alcohol. Greater steps that promote prevention, resiliency, and opportunity must be taken to address the underlying issues of pain, hopelessness, and despair.”

The report calls for a national resilience strategy that takes a comprehensive approach by focusing on prevention, early identification of problems, and effective treatment.

“Simply creating new programs to address one piece of the problem is insufficient. We need more robust and systematic change. The good news is, we know a lot about what works and can make a difference,” said Benjamin F. Miller, PsyD, chief policy officer for Well Being Trust.

“This report highlights the need for investments that take a whole-person approach to well-being encompassing the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of well-being to truly address the drivers of pain, ultimately saving lives,” he added.

The report’s recommendations include the following:

  • Pain management and treatment could be improved by helping people heal physically, mentally, and emotionally. “Approaches must acknowledge that there are different types of pain, and experts from mental health, medical care and other disciplines must develop team-based solutions that focus on proactively addressing pain before it gets worse,” the report states.
  • The opioid crisis should be confronted through a full-scale approach that includes promoting responsible opioid prescribing practices; public education about misuse and safe disposal of unused drugs; “hotspot” intervention strategies; anti trafficking to stop the flow of heroin, fentanyl, and other illicit drugs; and expanding the use and availability of rescue drugs, sterile syringes, and diversion programs.
  • The impact of the opioid epidemic on children should be addressed. There is need for a multigenerational response that includes substance use disorder treatment for parents and wrap-around services for children and families.
  • Excessive alcohol use could be addressed through instituting evidence-based policies, such as by increasing pricing, limiting hours and density of alcohol sales, enforcing underage drinking laws, and holding sellers and hosts liable for serving minors.
  • Suicide prevention could be heightened by expanding crisis intervention services; establishing anti bullying and social-emotional learning in schools; supporting systems for veterans; and integrating mental health into primary care. The report notes that the Zero Suicide model program has shown an 80% reduction in suicides.
  • Mental health and substance use disorder treatment services could be expanded and modernized with a goal of focusing on the “whole health” of individuals by prioritizing innovative integrated delivery models for rural and underserved urban areas and expanding the provider workforce, including those who can deliver medication-assisted treatment.
  • Prevention could be prioritized, risk factors reduced, and resilience could be promoted in children, families, and communities by limiting trauma and adverse experiences, which have the biggest long-term impact on later substance misuse, and promoting better mental health.
  • Substance misuse prevention and mental health in schools could be enhanced by scaling up evidence-based programs for developing life skills and coping skills, by promoting inclusive school environments, and by increasing the availability of mental health and other services.

“There is not one answer, but if we take a strategic and comprehensive approach focusing on effective, high-impact efforts, the solutions are definable and achievable. This report shows a path forward,” said Miller.

The full report, including maps and graphics and an interactive tool that tracks the epidemics nationally and by state since 1999, is available online.

The report was supported by grants from the Well Being Trust and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Data analysis and projections were provided by the Berkeley Research Group.