Deaths of Despair Have Increased for Black Americans Since 1999

(HealthDay News) — Midlife deaths from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease, collectively known as deaths of despair, increased from 1999 through 2022, according to a research letter published online April 10 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Joseph Friedman, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Helena Hansen, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a cross-sectional study leveraging records from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER database to calculate midlife mortality from deaths of despair in the United States from January 1999 to December 2022.

The researchers found that the total midlife mortality rate from these causes was 72.15 and 36.24 per 100,000 population among White and Black individuals, respectively. There was a sharp increase in deaths of despair among Black individuals after 2015. The death rate nearly tripled among Black individuals by 2022, increasing to 103.81 per 100,000, comparable to 102.63 per 100,000 among White people. From 1999 to 2022, the midlife mortality rate from deaths of despair was significantly higher among American Indian or Alaska Native individuals versus White individuals, with the rate 241.70 per 100,000 in 2022.

“Rising inequalities in deaths of despair among American Indian or Alaska Native and Black individuals were largely attributable to disproportionate early mortality from drug- and alcohol-related causes, which increased leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors write.

What are deaths of despair?

“Deaths of despair” are fatalities caused by suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholic liver disease. These deaths are often linked to feelings of hopelessness, isolation, and a lack of opportunity. While initially thought to be a problem primarily affecting white Americans, recent studies have found a disturbing trend: deaths of despair are rising rapidly within the Black community. The rate for these types of deaths for Black Americans has tripled since 2013, with a significant increase seen after 2015.

Several factors contribute to the higher rates of deaths of despair in Black communities. These include:

  • Socioeconomic disparity: Black Americans face persistent economic disadvantages. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness and a lack of control over their lives.
  • Limited access to health care: Black communities often have limited access to quality mental health and addiction treatment services. Stigma in the Black community surrounding mental health issues can further prevent people from seeking help.
  • Systemic racism and exposure to interpersonal racism throughout life can take a toll on mental health. Black Americans experience discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the criminal justice system. This constant stress can contribute to feelings of despair and hopelessness.

How to prevent deaths of despair

Here are some potential solutions to preventing deaths of despair in the Black community:

  • Invest in mental health services: Increased funding for culturally competent mental health services in Black communities is crucial.
  • Expand access to affordable health care: Expanding access to affordable health care, including mental health and addiction treatment, is essential.
  • Address social determinants of health: Efforts to address poverty, unemployment, and discrimination will contribute to a better quality of life and reduce feelings of despair.
  • Promote community-based solutions: Community-based organizations are vital in supporting mental health and well-being. Investing in these programs can foster a sense of belonging and connection.

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