Alcohol, Drug and Suicide Deaths Are All on the Rise. What Do they Have in Common?

By Chris Adams

One death every four minutes: That’s the toll from drugs, alcohol and suicide in the U.S. – and the movement in that number is in the wrong direction.

In a session with journalists at a National Press Foundation program, the leaders of two public health organizations laid out the numbers of such deaths and discussed ways the nation might get a handle on them.

John Auerbach, CEO and president of Trust for America’s Health, and Ben Miller, chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust, talked about their joint report, “Pain in the Nation: The Drug, Alcohol and Suicide Epidemics and the Need for a National Resilience Strategy.”

Much of the public focus in recent years has been on the rush in opioids deaths, and Auerbach and Miller documented those still-worsening trends. Those deaths are jumping the fastest, and the nationwide toll from opioid abuse could top 2 million people within the next decade.

Pointing to a chart that documented the increase in deaths, Auerbach said, “I’ve been doing public health for 30 years, and when you see a slope like that it’s usually for an infectious disease.” He called the uptrend “extremely troubling and extremely unusual.”

Their report documents both the states with the highest “despair” rate – deaths from one of those causes – and those with the fastest-growing rates. While Rust Belt states figure prominently in both lists, the three states atop the despair list illustrate how it’s a nationwide problem: West Virginia, New Mexico and Alaska.

“This is not our country’s first opioid crisis,” Miller said. “Each time before, we came out of it.”

The report’s resilience strategy is focused on reminding public health officials that they need to treat the underlying causes of the problem – not just the symptoms.

According to the report, leaders need to prioritize prevention, reduce risk factors and promote resilience in children, families and communities. What does that actually mean?

It starts with limiting trauma and other adverse experiences – which have the biggest long-term impact on later substance misuse – and promoting better mental health. To tackle that issue, prevention and mental health programs in schools need to be retooled and beefed up. Miller and Auerbach detailed other recommendations from the report, focusing on what health systems, the criminal justice system and other public players can do.

“It’s not going to be one program,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a comprehensive approach to the issue of health.”

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