A disturbing new report by a national health organization is forecasting a 10 percent increase in the rate of deaths in Utah in the next decade associated with suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. This comes despite countless efforts to promote suicide prevention and to limit the availability of opioid drugs and to prevent excessive drinking. The report suggests the need here and nationally for a more concerted effort to recognize and treat underlying mental health problems that can lead people to turn to substance abuse or contemplate taking their own lives.
The report, by the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health, offers a foreboding glimpse into the prevalence of substance abuse tied to despair, depression or anxiety that can culminate in fatal overdoses or an act of suicide. Health experts have long warned of a failure to properly emphasize diagnosis and treatment of mental health problems, particularly among young people. The report by the health trust validates those warnings and should generate a discussion about what can be done to improve our awareness of illnesses that won’t be cured by making it harder to acquire drugs or liquor.
Utah is engaged in the national discussion over the opioid epidemic, and the state and local stakeholders are rightly pursuing policies to make sure prescribed narcotics aren’t easily acquired and abused. But there is a thriving underground market for black-market opioids, and authorities say there has been an increase in the supply and demand of heroin. Policies to combat opioid abuse and to limit access to alcohol among young people are fully necessary, but they do not address the question of why more people are apparently turning to substances, perhaps as a way to self-medicate.
“Drug and alcohol misuse and suicide are signals of serious underlying concerns,” according to John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. “They reflect that too many Americans are facing pain, despair, disconnection and a lack of opportunity. If more action is not taken, these trends will become significantly worse.”
He correctly points out that the United States is dealing with a public health problem with economic and sociological underpinnings. Has modern life become too isolating? Are virtual relationships through social media replacing more rewarding personal connections among friends and family? Are economic trends forcing a growing class of Americans into a place where they see little opportunity to grow and prosper? These questions are not easy to answer, but the report by the health trust does give beneficial advice on how the situation can be countered. It calls for a nationwide strategy to emphasize prevention and early detection of psychological problems and for people to individually adopt a philosophy of “building resilience” through early education programs and with support mechanisms for families with members who are on a path of destructive behavior.
The magnitude of the problem cannot be understated. Increases in deaths caused by substance abuse and suicide are resulting in lower overall rates of life expectancy. Changing the course of this distressing trend will depend on efforts to better understand and address its root causes and the ability to identify and treat those who, for whatever reason, are on a path of behavior that too often brings a tragic result.