Annual US Death Toll From Drugs, Alcohol, Suicide Tops 150,000

Megan Brooks

May 21, 2020

Despite decreases in overall opioid overdose deaths in 2018, deaths involving synthetic opioids, cocaine, and other psychostimulants increased sharply in the United States, and alcohol and suicide deaths also rose, new data show.

A report released today by the Trust for America's Health (TFAH) and the Well Being Trust shows that 151,964 Americans died from alcohol, drugs, and suicide. Experts warn that these "deaths of despair" may well increase in the wake of COVID-19.

A study released earlier this month, which was reported by Medscape Medical New, estimated that an additional 75,000 Americans could die by suicide, drugs, or alcohol abuse because of the pandemic.

"These data are a clarion call to action," TFAH President and CEO John Auerbach said in a news release.

"We know what works to address deaths of despair but progress has been uneven and death rates continue to climb, with communities of color experiencing higher rates of increases in drug-induced and alcohol deaths," he said.

"And there's another immediate concern: the COVID-19 crisis has increased the health burdens and economic pressures on many communities of color," said Auerbach.

According to the report, the 2018 national rate for alcohol, drug, and suicide deaths combined was only slightly lower than that reported in 2017 (46.4 vs 46.6 per 100,000).

Among the key findings in the report:

  • 37,329 Americans died from alcohol-induced causes in 2018; the rate was up 4% over 2017.

  • Alcohol-induced deaths were highest among American Indians (30.0 per 100,000) and adults aged 55 to 74 (27.6 per 100,000). For all population groups, rates of alcohol-related deaths were higher in 2018 than in 2017 except for people aged 17 years and younger, for whom the rate held steady.

  • Despite a 4% decline in all drug-induced deaths and a 2% drop in all opioid-related deaths, 2018 saw sharp increases in deaths involving synthetic opioids (up 10%), cocaine (up 5%), and other psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, ecstasy, amphetamine, and prescription stimulants (up 22%).

  • Suicide claimed the lives of 48,344 Americans in 2018. The suicide rate in 2018 was 2% higher than in 2017 and 25% higher than in 2008.

  • Suicide rates increased across all demographics except for adults aged 18 to 54 years, among whom the rate remained stable. Suicide death rates were highest in males (23.4 per 100,000), rural residents (19.7 per 100,000), whites (16.8 per 100,000), and American Indian/Alaska Natives (14.1 per 100,000).

  • Between 2017 and 2018, 27 states had higher rates (above 0.04%) of alcohol, drug, and suicide deaths; 23 states and the District of Columbia had lower rates of deaths from those causes.

  • States with the highest alcohol, drug, and suicide death rates in 2018 were West Virginia (84.9 per 100,000), New Mexico (82.8 per 100,000), New Hampshire (68.2 per 100,000), and Alaska (67.8 per 100,000).

  • States with the lowest rates in 2018 were Texas (31.7 per 100,000), Mississippi (31.7 per 100,000), and Hawaii (34.6 per 100,000).

"Quite simply, too many Americans are dying from preventable causes. The profound racial health disparities seen in these data show that many ethnic minority groups are being left behind in our response efforts," Benjamin F. Miller, PsyD, Well Being Trust chief strategy officer, said in the release.

"The nation needs a comprehensive framework for excellence in mental health and well-being, one that intentionally provides solutions for American Indians, Blacks, Asians and Latinos. With all the other COVID-19 related investments, it's time for the federal government to fully invest in mental health now and for all states to take action," said Miller.

Policy recommendations outlined in the report include investing in prevention; reducing risk factors and promoting resilience in children, families, and communities; engaging all sectors of society to address mental health and substance use disorders; limiting access to lethal means of suicide; and promoting safe storage of medications and firearms.

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