MENTAL HEALTH

More Young Americans Are Succumbing to “Deaths of Despair”

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
 | 
September 14, 2021

Deaths of despair due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide have increased among people 25 to 34 years old since 2010.

We think of our 20s and early 30s as a time of peak strength and health before the illnesses of aging may set in. It is especially tragic when someone so young dies.

But more and more Americans in that age group have been dying since 2010. You can blame the COVID pandemic in part for a quarter jump in deaths of despair in 2020. But the death rate increased by a quarter in the previous nine years. Altogether, the death rate for 25 to 34 year-olds jumped by more than half from 2010 through 2020.

The main reason: deaths from drugs, alcohol, and suicide.

That hasn’t always been true. In the 1960s, deaths of young adults increased but because of car accidents and murders. In the 1980s and early 1990s, it jumped because of HIV/AIDS. Then, beginning in 2000, drug overdoses began their steady climb, followed by suicides.

Meanwhile, death rates in this age group have dropped fairly steadily since 1960 in France, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

On top of the opioid crisis, which has hit Americans especially hard, our young people are more likely to die in a car or by a gun. More Americans own guns, and more Americans speed when they drive.  Americans without college degrees and rural Americans have especially high death rates.

Why are there so many suicides?

It’s important to realize that suicide statistics probably underestimate the problem, since many deaths will be classified as accidents. No one can say exactly why someone drove 80 miles an hour while they were drunk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that people who have experienced violence, including child abuse, bullying, or sexual violence, have a higher suicide risk. Veterans[DE3] , people who live in rural areas, workers in mining and construction, and people who are not heterosexual are also at higher risk. Having access to guns is a factor: About one-half of U.S. suicides involve firearms. On the other hand, people who are connected to family and a community are less likely to attempt suicide.

How to possibly stop deaths from despair

A variety of programs have been proposed to get at the roots before young people face adulthood. An increase of funds for mental health and drug abuse prevention programs in school could help. Schools also need more resources to address and screen for childhood trauma.

Other actions that might help:

  • Providing parents and other caregivers with substance use disorder treatment
  • Focusing on keeping at-risk children in safe homes while improving the foster care system
  • Tightening enforcement against speeding and drunk driving
  • Developing more ways to prevent suicide by firearms

How are other age groups doing?

Americans 65 and older have seen a steady improvement in life expectancy for almost a century, until the arrival of COVID-19. For people in their middle years, there was a slight increase in death rates in the past decade before the pandemic, but the overall pattern has been good. For infants and children, the last century has seen big improvements, although sudden infant death syndrome has been a bigger problem in the United States than in Europe.

Updated:  

September 14, 2021

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN