With over 127,000 Americans currently dying from drugs, alcohol, and suicide each year, if present trends continue, those numbers could increase by an astounding 60 percent over the next decade. The recent rapid increase in deaths from heroin, as well as the dangerous opioids fentanyl and carfentanil, play a big role in these grim projections.
As tragic as these predictions are, it is important to note that many of these deaths are preventable. The nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) is committed to building a public health defense strong enough to protect Americans from as many preventable deaths as possible, and one proposal is to develop a national resilience strategy focused on prevention, early intervention, and treatment for drug and alcohol abuse.
The TFAH recently released a report titled “Pain in the Nation: The Drug, Alcohol and Suicide Crises and the Need for a National Resilience Strategy” to begin mapping out such a plan.
Statistics on Deaths Due to Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide
According to figures in the recent TFAH report, drug-related deaths have tripled since the year 2000, and nearly three percent of Americans have a substance use disorder. Opioids are a huge part of the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse, and account for the startling increases in deaths related to fentanyl, heroin, and other opioids.
If that were not enough, deaths due to alcohol have reached a 35-year high. All alcohol-attributable deaths, including those due to motor vehicle accidents and violence related to alcohol use total 88,000 per year. For comparison purposes, the city of Santa Barbara, California has a population of around 88,000.
During the first 15 years of this century, suicides increased by 28 percent and now account for more than 44,000 deaths per year. Suicide rates are and have historically been higher among men, but the greatest increases in suicides have been in middle-aged women, who have experienced a 63 percent increase in suicides, and young girls ages 10 to 14, who have experienced a heartbreaking 200 percent increase in suicides. It is also noteworthy that alcohol use is involved in nearly one-quarter of suicides and around 40 percent of suicide attempts.
What Would a National Resilience Strategy Include?
An effective national resilience strategy must take a comprehensive approach to addressing these problems, including prevention, early intervention, and access to effective treatment of drug and alcohol abuse as well as mental illnesses. Programs are expected to include:
- Improving pain management and treatment methods
- Promoting responsible opioid prescribing practices
- Addressing the opioid epidemic with a multi-generational response
- Using legal and policy remedies to reduce excessive alcohol use
- Expanding crisis intervention and anti-bullying initiatives to prevent suicides
- Expanding access to mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment services
- Prioritizing prevention and risk reduction in children, families, and communities
- Upgrading prevention initiatives in schools to use evidence-based elements
Expected Return on Investment for Resilience Programs
The return on investment of a comprehensive national resilience strategy is expected to be positive not only in terms of lives saved but also in terms of cost savings. For example, for every dollar invested in the five strongest school-based substance abuse prevention programs, cost savings range from $3.80 to $34. Every dollar invested in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program confers savings of $2-$3, and every dollar invested in sobriety treatment and recovery teams that use a family-oriented approach to treatment saves $2.22. As for policy and legal remedies to curb alcohol use, studies have shown that a 10 percent increase in the price of alcohol reduces consumption by 7.7 percent.
Strategy Must Address Pain, Disconnection, and Lack of Opportunity
To be successful, the national resilience strategy proposed by TFAH must address the here-and-now of mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse and must also address issues that fuel these problems. Despair, feelings of disconnection and isolation, and lack of economic opportunity are like gasoline poured on the fire of substance abuse and mental illness, and addressing these is absolutely essential to making positive long-term progress against drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the alienation that can lead to serious mental illness. Occupational justice must be recognized and explored as part of the solution to the current crises of drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.