So-called “deaths of despair,” those involving drug abuse, alcohol, or suicide, have been the subject of numerous studies over the last year attempting to measure the collateral damage of lockdowns and economic shutdowns in response to COVID-19.
Even before the pandemic, this was seen as a growing problem. One study noted the combined death rate from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, or suicide rose 51% between 2005 and 2016.
One tragic aspect of these deaths is that they are made up of mostly younger Americans, those who might have had 40, 50, or 60 more years of life had they not fallen victim to severe depression or addiction. Of course, this is not to diminish the immense pain felt by thousands of families across the country as a result of COVID infection.
The abuse of opioid drugs, both prescribed and illicit, has been a persistent problem—especially in the northeast and New England—in recent decades, and a main driver of deaths of despair.
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show many states in the northeast saw significant jumps in overdose deaths between 2013 and2017. In this way, Maine and New Hampshire started at around the same place, and provide a reasonable baseline upon which to compare the last few years, including over the pandemic and shutdowns.
From 2017 to 2019, the numbers of drug overdose deaths had been relatively stable, if not trending lower in many states. In 2019, the nation saw more than 70,000 overdose fatalities. Sadly, over last year, they are estimated to have been the highest in two decades at more than 90,000.
That disturbing 22% year-over-year jump in overdose fatalities nationally was even worse in Maine, which recorded 505 overdose deaths, a 33% climb from 2019.
Just over the border, preliminary data from the New Hampshire Drug Monitoring Initiative (NHDMI), a state agency which measures the impact of the opioid epidemic, projects that the Granite State saw 411 overdose fatalities in 2020, dropping more than 3% year-over-year, marking “the lowest since before 2015.”
In 2019, Maine had 8.5% fewer overdose deaths than New Hampshire, but in 2020, Maine had 28% more. The difference between these two similar states is staggering, but is there a way to explain it?
A recent paper out of the University of Chicago, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, found that “the pandemic and recession were associated with a 10-60% increase in deaths of despair above already high pre-pandemic levels.” Based on excess death numbers for the US over 2020, researchers determined that “the demographic and time patterns of the non-COVID excess deaths point to deaths of despair rather than an under-count of COVID deaths.”
Opioid abuse was a fast-growing public health crisis years before COVID-19 came on the scene, but why did Maine fare worse in this way than our neighbor, and the nation at large over 2020?
In this troubling data, some see the importance of understanding trade-offs in public policy. That’s why, in spring of 2020, Maine Policy Institute sent a letter to Governor Mills urging a balanced approach to COVID-19. Instead, Mills instituted broad, unworkable mandates on businesses, travel, gatherings, and social interactions. Since then, the state and the nation at large have witnessed vast societal consequences, including higher rates of depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts among youth.
Although it is difficult to find a direct link between lockdown policies and opioid deaths, we know this: despair and depression has risen among the youth over the last year. More despair likely leads to more deaths of despair, and we have already known that opioid overdoses have been a substantial historical driver of deaths of despair.
It doesn’t take advanced calculus to see that these phenomena are linked. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that we are all connected, and when we are forced by state mandates to shift our daily lives—no matter how noble the cause—unintended consequences are right around the corner.