In the 1930s, America experienced a devastating depression. People died in the hundreds of thousands every year. And yet, death-toll statistics from that era proved inaccurate, simply due to the unreported collateral damage. People were starving from lack of food. This rendered them medically vulnerable. Many died from such benign causes as the common cold.
Our country is in a similar situation today. COVID-19 has already caused nearly 100,000 deaths and that number will escalate. But what will never be accounted for are “deaths of despair.” According to the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies and Family Medicine and Primary Care, an entire subset of the population is at serious risk. It is estimated that the pandemic could lead to 75,000 additional deaths from addiction involving alcohol and drugs, as well as suicide.
Although alarming, this number is not surprising. During challenging times, especially when physical distancing rules are in effect, people resort to what they “know” on their own to cope, to dull the pain, such as using drugs and alcohol to make it through. People get disconnected from treatment and peer recovery support, which helps them connect to the Power needed to arrest the disease of alcoholism (the disease that resides in their brains and affects their thinking, behaviors and relationships). Add that to a daily life of unemployment, financial stress, loss of insurance and access to good care, mounting bills, and isolation, all of which increase the risk of depression. Depression and addiction each increase risk of mortality related to suicide and overdose, with the risk increasing greatly for people who have co-occurring illness.
At SunCloud Health, we recognize this reality, even in times without a pandemic. This is why we come to work every day. We see the difference between the person and their disease; we help people in a variety of ways (medically, pharmacologically, behaviorally, emotionally, socially, spiritually) to return to healthy functioning. With such help, people are able to learn new ways to cope with pain and discomfort, ways that are not only compatible with staying alive but a manner of living that empowers them to thrive in life; we instill hope by believing in each person’s capacity for healing.
The need for psychiatric care doesn’t vanish because of masks or social distancing. We understand that our patients have potential life-threatening diseases. Now more than ever people are in need of support. Now is the time for prevention, intervention, treatment and ongoing disease management. It isn’t just about freedom from an addiction, eating disorder or other brain disease (commonly referred to as “mental illness,” which only serves to minimize and stigmatize). It’s about the strength and resiliency that comes from living a life in recovery. It’s about being a valuable, unique, contributing member of a supportive community that understands where you have been and where you are going.
People in recovery are uniquely equipped to cope with adversity, precisely because of what they have overcome. They have survived death from an illness that devastates millions of sufferers and their families and kills thousands of people each year. They have overcome a disease that hijacks their brains, thinking and behaviors (which many people mistake as their “choices”). They’ve painstakingly found a way out of loneliness and isolation. They get used to letting go of that which they cannot control and focus on what they need to do to get and stay well.
Each one of us, whether a friend, family member, or recovered person, can play a part today in mitigating deaths of despair. Though physically distanced, stay connected. When you or a loved one see someone in trouble, reach out with support and call for professional help. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals are braced for the toll we are already seeing on the mental health of our communities as we all deal with the physical, emotional, social and economic fallout of COVID-19.