COVID-19, Addiction, and “Deaths of Despair”


Amid a global pandemic, it can be challenging to remember that America was already facing a national addiction epidemic before COVID-19 washed ashore. Now the country is faced with two public health crises; one is two decades old, and the other just a few months. However, in a short time, 1,713,775 Americans have tested positive, and at least 100,446 have lost their lives to the health complications related to the coronavirus since February.

It’s not much of a surprise that the focus has shifted from the addiction epidemic to the COVID-19 pandemic. With more than 40 million Americans out of work (roughly one in four), it’s hard to think about anything other than the pandemic. Still, it’s vital that we do not lose sight that the two public health crises we face will impact one another.

First, those living with drug addiction and alcohol use disorder are immunocompromised, which means they are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. Second, the anxiety, depression, and uncertainty plaguing millions of Americans will lead to an increase in self-destructive behaviors as people try to cope.

Alcohol sales are soaring; deadly synthetic opioids are being used to make up for the shortages in heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Containing the virus has made it much more challenging to get illicit drugs across the border. There is already evidence of a spike in overdoses due to synthetic opioids like fentanyl and a new – which is uncontrolled by the DEA – designer opioid called isotonitazene.

Millions of Americans are in a bad way, and they have no idea when things will change for the better. After making some strides in recent years to level the curve of “deaths of despair,” there is a high likelihood that the pandemic will cancel out those gains.

COVID-19 and Addiction

Since 1999, overdose deaths rose annually across the country. In 2017, there were 46.6 deaths per 100,000 Americans, according to the Well Being Trust. Then, surprisingly, there was not a marked increase in overdose deaths in 2018; researchers again found the annual death rate was 46.4 deaths per 100,000. A slight reduction, but worth taking note of considering that at least 630,000 people died of drug overdoses between 1999 and 2016.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is almost certainly going to lead to a rise in deaths of despair in 2020. The Well Being Trust conducted a new study that shows that more than 150,000 Americans could die due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. Without significant action and funding from federal, state, and local governments, the predictions could come to fruition in the coming days and months.

“We see very troubling signs across the nation,” said Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA). “There’s more substance abuse, more overdoses, more domestic violence and neglect and abuse of children.”

SAMHSA is asking for more funding to address the predicted increase in people’s need for mental health and addiction treatment, USA Today reports. McCance-Katz adds:

“The impetus is COVID-19, but the need was there before and it’s just been increased by what’s happened as a result of the virus.”

California Chemical Dependency Rehabilitation Hospital

Addiction and mental health treatment is an essential service that saves lives. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol, substance use, or a co-occurring mental health disorder, please contact Hemet Valley Recovery Center & Sage Retreat. Our treatment center and medical detox is the ideal environment to begin a journey of lasting recovery. Take the first step with HVRC.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the tens of millions of people around the globe who have been impacted or lost a loved one from COVID-19.