An emergency room signAs the COVID-19 outbreak swept through America this spring, taking more than 100,000 lives and causing debilitating illnesses, a shadow pandemic was also underway, bringing its own devastation.

In March, as more Americans practiced physical distancing, the crisis hotline of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a nonprofit mental health organization in the Los Angeles area, lit up with callers, with 20% expressing “suicidal desire,” an organization report said. And in April, when 20.5 million people had lost their jobs, text messages to the federal disaster distress hotline spiked by over 900%, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

For years America had been reeling from a steady rise in “deaths of despair,” which are defined as deaths by suicide or associated with alcohol or drug use. Nearly 182,000 people died from those means in 2018. Then came the COVID-19 outbreak.

A May 8 report estimated 75,000 additional U.S. deaths of despair over the next decade. The projection was based on a model of the socioeconomic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and continuing paucity of mental health services. The researchers acknowledged that if they had also modeled the mental stresses of social isolation and economic uncertainty, the estimate would have been higher.

“It is as if COVID has come in as a multiplier of social, economic factors that are making deaths of despair even worse,” said Benjamin Miller, PsyD, chief strategy officer at the Well Being Trust foundation, which released the report with the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.

The estimate, of course, is not America’s definitive fate. Effective policies exist that show suicides can be reduced through gun safety laws and other means.

Continue reading this story from the July 2020 issue of The Nation's Health.

Photo courtesy Adam Calaitzis, iStockphoto