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The coronavirus pandemic could lead to an estimated 75,000 “deaths of despair” from alcohol, drug use, suicide, and other factors, new research suggests.
The health group Well Being Trust released projections on mounting deaths driven by social isolation, skyrocketing unemployment, and anxiety on Friday. Widespread government shutdowns implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus have exacerbated these impacts, driving the U.S. economy into one of its deepest recessions in a matter of weeks. The shutdowns have also cut off almost every American from community events such as church and sports.
“Undeniably policymakers must place a large focus on mitigating the effects of COVID. However, if the country continues to ignore the collateral damage — specifically our nation’s mental health — we will not come out of this stronger,” said Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust. “If we work to put in place healthy community conditions, good healthcare coverage, and inclusive policies, we can improve mental health and well-being. With all the other COVID-related investments, it’s time for the federal government to fully support a framework for excellence in mental health and well-being and invest in mental health now.”
Researchers used the number of “deaths of despair” from 2018 – 181,686 deaths – as a baseline and factored in projections of the lasting economic impact of the pandemic and shutdowns from 2020 through 2029. Models of the best and worst-case scenarios yielded results of an additional 27,644 deaths to 154,037 deaths.
The Department of Labor released the April jobs report in Friday, giving the most comprehensive glimpse yet at the extensive damage done to business and workers across the United States. The data showed that the unemployment rate had jumped over 10% from a month prior to 14%.
Well Being Trust’s report points out that each additional point of unemployment increases the number of deaths from suicide by 1-1.6%, meaning that each percent increase in unemployment could cause tens of thousands of additional deaths over the time it takes the economy to recover.
To blunt the impact of the economic and mental trauma of the virus and shutdowns, the researchers proposed easing access to mental health care, better communication of the facts of the disease, and a transparent plan for the future. The team also said that getting people back to work is “central” to saving lives.
“The literature is clear that unemployment is a risk factor for suicide and drug overdose as well as a decrease in overall health status. To this end, policy solutions must focus on providing meaningful work to those who are unemployed,” the report says, proposing to supply jobs through expanding the government’s response to the virus and building out track and trace capacity in the U.S.
Most states have begun easing heavy-handed emergency restrictions put in place in mid-March and early April, though no state has eased rules completely. For the foreseeable future, those businesses allowed to operate will have to do so according to strict health safety guidelines.
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