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Diseases of despair in the U.S. - Statistics & Facts

Diseases of despair, or deaths of despair, refer to the impact of drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol abuse on people and communities who experience a prolonged sense of despair due to their social or economic circumstances. Death rates from all three of these behavior-related medical conditions have increased in recent years in the United States. Deaths from these three conditions have risen so much that they have been cited as a major contributor to the recent decline in the overall life expectancy in the U.S. The impact of diseases of despair is greater among males than females and affects poor, uneducated non-Hispanic whites more than any other race or ethnicity. The ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States has brought attention to the suffering caused by diseases of despair and has provided a glimpse into just how widespread and significant these conditions are.

The rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States has risen gradually over the past couple of decades. Opioids, including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and illegally manufactured synthetic opioids, account for the vast majority of overdose deaths. In 2017, there were around 47,600 overdose deaths from opioids in the U.S. The rise in opioid overdose deaths has led many to declare the U.S. is experiencing an “opioid epidemic” and the crisis was declared a “national emergency” by President Donald Trump. The origins of the epidemic are found in the spread of misleading information from pharmaceutical companies about the dangers of prescription opioids and poor prescribing behavior among physicians. However, now the epidemic has recently been exacerbated by the introduction of cheap and powerful, illegally manufactured synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Drug overdose deaths are a nation-wide problem but affect some states and regions more than others. As of 2018, West Virginia, Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were the states with the highest rates of drug overdose death.

The negative impacts of alcohol abuse are well known, but binge drinking and long-term alcohol misuse remain widespread in the United States. As of 2018, around 17.4 percent of adults in the U.S. reported binge drinking in the last thirty days. Binge drinking is usually defined as four or more drinks among women and five or more drinks among men in a two-hour period and is the most harmful form of alcohol use. Negative health effects from binge drinking and long-term alcohol use include an increased risk of unintentional injury, alcohol poisoning, high blood pressure, stroke, and liver disease. The death rate from alcohol-related liver cirrhosis in the U.S. has increased over the past couple decades, with an estimated 22,246 deaths from alcohol-related liver cirrhosis in 2017. There exist a variety of treatment options for those suffering from alcohol use disorders, ranging from inpatient hospital care to outpatient treatment through mental health centers. The most popular form of treatment for alcohol use in the U.S. is through self-help groups.

As seen with drug overdose deaths and alcohol-related liver cirrhosis deaths, death rates from suicide in the U.S. have also risen in recent years. In fact, in 2018, intentional self-harm, or suicide, was the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Rates of death by suicide are around 3.5 times higher among males than among females, with non-Hispanic whites accounting for the largest portion of such deaths. In 2016, almost 83 percent of all deaths by suicide were among non-Hispanic whites. The reasons behind why working class white males suffer from diseases of despair more than other groups are complicated, but may have to do with growing economic inequality, social isolation due to lower marriage rates and increased rates of divorce among this group, and the feeling that they are not doing better than their parents did.

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Diseases of despair in the U.S.

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Drug overdose


Alcohol abuse


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