Deaths of despair are losses related to drugs and alcohol, as well as death by suicide. Millennials are particularly susceptible.

There’s an unfortunate trend among millennials and it’s one that can be uncomfortable to talk about. So-called “deaths of despair” are increasing among millennials and young people. According to a report from the group Trust for America’s Health and Well-Being, deaths related to drugs, alcohol or suicide claimed 36,000 millennial lives in 2017. The report looked at millennials aged 23 to 38 and was based on recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Deaths of Despair Among People Aged 18-34

“Deaths of despair” is a general term for deaths related to suicide, as well as alcohol and drugs, including deaths stemming from opioid overdoses. These types of deaths have increased across all age groups in the past decade, particularly among younger Americans.

Key statistics cited by the new report included:

  • In the ten years between 2007 and 2017, drug-related deaths went up 108% among adults aged 18 to 34
  • During this same time, deaths related to alcohol increased 69%
  • Suicides increased by 35%

The opioid crisis was a major driver of overdose-related deaths among millennials and other age groups. Opioids include prescription drugs, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Recently, however, federal estimates show the rates of opioid overdose deaths may be starting to slow, at least a bit.

Heavy drinking also led to disproportionately higher rates of death among younger people than older people.

What’s Causing the Trend?

Researchers, doctors, and public health officials are looking at some of the reasons that young people are experiencing these high deaths rates related to drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

One reason noted in the report is that young people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including behaviors related to drug and alcohol use.

However, there may be generational factors at play as well. For example, millennials are heavily affected by financial stress because of the student loan debt crisis, the rising cost of living, and health care issues. There may also be less social support for millennials than for older adults because fewer people in this age group participate in community or faith-based groups, and younger people are waiting longer to get married.

Another possible reason for the increase in deaths of despair include the struggles that came with trying to build and maintain a career during the great recession. Social media is sometimes implicated as a reason for rising rates of mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Younger people are constantly facing information about the lives of others, which can make them feel like they aren’t accomplishing enough or that their lives aren’t measuring up. There can be a sense of pressure that stems from social media, and it can reduce self-esteem.

Social media interactions may be less fulfilling and nurturing than real-life connections, and that can reduce the sense of connectedness and social support.

These trends are troubling not only from the standpoint of the millennials who are affected but also because these young people are becoming parents and their struggles with drugs, alcohol and mental health have the potential to impact future generations.

Are There Solutions?

Of course, there is no magic solution to the problems that are contributing to the deaths of despair, but the report does make suggestions. For example, making mental health screening and treatment more accessible and part of routine health care is recommended. Prevention programs and more readily available treatment for substance use disorder may help, as can the implementation of better prescription drug practices throughout the country.

More sweeping changes include improved affordability of health insurance, more taxes on alcohol, and better substance misuse treatment programs within the criminal justice system as a disproportionate number of millennials are in jail or prison.

If you are struggling with substance misuse and mental health issues, reach out to The Recovery Village. You are not alone, help is available.

Ashley Sutphin
By – Ashley Sutphin
Ashley Sutphin Watkins received her degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Psychology and Journalism. Read more

Hoffower, Hillary. “Deaths of despair’ are taking more lives of millennial Americans than any other generation.” Business Insider, June 16, 2019. Accessed June 25, 2019.

Ducharme, Jamie. “More Millennials Are Dying ‘Deaths of Despair’ as Overdose and Suicide Rates Climb.” Time, June 13, 2019. Accessed June 25, 2019.

Curley, Christopher. “Why Millennial Depression Is On the Rise.” Healthline, March 11, 2019. Accessed June 25, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.