Drug ODs, suicides soaring among US millennials

What is the root cause of millennials' suicidal tendencies?
What is the root cause of millennials' suicidal tendencies?

So-called "deaths of despair" are skyrocketing among millennials, with thousands of 18- to 34-year-olds losing their lives to drugs, alcohol and suicide each year, a new report says.

During the past decade, drug-related deaths among that age group increased by 108%, alcohol-induced deaths by 69%, and suicides by 35%, according to the report from the Trust for America's Health and Well Being Trust.

A call to action

Millennials are more heavily affected than older generations by each of these causes of death, the report states:

  • In 2017, there were nearly 31 drug overdose deaths for every 100 000 18- to 34-year-olds, but fewer than 23 drug deaths per 100 000 across all age groups.
  • Alcohol-induced death rates doubled for millennials between 1999 and 2007.
  • Young adults experienced a 35% increase in suicide rates between 2007 and 2017, compared with a 14% increase for 35- to 54-year-olds; a 24% increase for those 55 to 74; and 14% uptick for people older than 75.

"We lost over 150 000 lives last year to drugs, alcohol and suicide. When we dive down deep into those data, the millennial generation just pops out," said Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer of Well Being Trust, a national foundation focused on mental, social and spiritual health.

"This is a call to action," Miller said of the new report. "It's unacceptable for us to continue to lose as many lives as we are losing to preventable causes. We have to do something different. What we are doing is simply not working."

The opioid epidemic cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor, Miller said.

Opioid overdose death rates among millennials increased by more than 500% between 1999 and 2017, and deaths caused by synthetic opioids increased by a staggering 6 000%.

Dark psyche of millennials

It's a terrible coincidence that millennials came of age "at a time when the medical profession was led down the wrong path in terms of opioid prescribing," said Dr Andrew Saxon, director of the Addiction Psychiatry Residency Program at the University of Washington in Seattle.

But the increases in alcohol deaths and suicides point to something darker within the psyche of millennials, who typically are defined as people born between 1981 and 1996.

They grew up with a succession of shattering events for the United States – the 9/11 terror attacks, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the Great Recession prompted by the housing bubble, Saxon said.

They graduated college saddled with heavy student debt at a time "our economy was near collapse", he said. "The expectations that they would have jobs waiting for them and their skills would be wanted – sort of suddenly all of those prospects disappeared."

Since then, they've had to grapple with the exploding costs of education and housing.

"We can track economic trends with suicides, and as long as we've been studying it, suicides have gone up during times of economic dislocation," Saxon said.

Negative effects of social media

Miller, meanwhile, said the rise of social media likely has also had an impact on millennials' sense of their prospects.

Social media can "make them feel more lonely – how come I don't have that, or how come no one likes my picture?" he said. "In those cases, the negative effects of social media are seen."

At the same time, mental health services continue to be doled out in a way that makes it unlikely many will get the help they need, Miller said.

"We know that six in 10 folks are seeking mental health care, yet if you look at the data, 96 million Americans last year had to wait over a week to get access to a mental health provider," Miller said.

"When someone says to you that you're going to have to come back next week or tomorrow or in two weeks, the likelihood you show up is relatively small," he added.

To help stem these deaths of despair, the report recommends:

  • Making mental health care, including screenings for substance use and depression, a routine part of primary care.
  • Improving insurance coverage for medication-based treatments for substance abuse.
  • Adopting pricing strategies to reduce alcohol consumption among teens and young adults.
  • Offering suicide prevention programmes throughout the health care system.
  • Making sure hospitals connect patients in crisis with behavioural health services in a timely manner.

Image credit: iStock

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