"Deaths of Despair" Surge Across The US

By Keri Blakinger 05/07/18

West Virginia is one of the hardest-hit states with a “deaths of despair” mortality rate of 83 per 100,000 population. 

medical staff rushing gurney down hospital hallway

So-called “deaths of despair” are on the rise in the U.S., according to a newly released report on state healthcare.

The combined death rate from suicide and drug use has skyrocketed 50% between 2005 and 2016, the Commonwealth Fund revealed in its 2018 Scorecard on State Health System Performance report.

Together, alcohol use, drug overdoses and suicides are often known as “deaths of despair,” a category of mortality that has risen in every state and doubled in some.

One of the hardest-hit states is West Virginia, which had a “deaths of despair” mortality rate of 83 per 100,000 population. 

The national average is 43, as of the latest 2016 data.

“This scorecard shows us that all states have the opportunity to improve, including those at the top,” said Commonwealth Fund President David Blumenthal. “Moving forward, we should continue to evaluate states’ progress and support effective policies that are making it easier for people to get and afford the health care they need.”

When it comes to deaths of despair, some states fared much better than others.

New Mexico had high numbers, with a rate of 72 deaths per 100,000 population. New Hampshire, Alaska, Ohio and Kentucky all had high suicide and drug death rates, as well.

Those with the largest relative increases—states where the rate at least doubled—include a number of states heavily impacted by the opioid crisis: Delaware, Ohio, New Hampshire, New York and West Virginia. 

The concept of “deaths of despair,” which has sparked a decline in overall life expectancy, first got national attention in 2015 after economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper on the phenomenon.

In addition to looking at deaths of despair, the latest study also found that premature deaths from preventable causes are on the rise, particularly in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. That’s reversing a long-term decline.

Obesity is presenting an increasing health threat across the country, and gaps in mental health care are a widespread problem, the report found. 

Up to a quarter of adults with mental health problems found that they weren’t able to get the care they needed at some point during the 2013 to 2015 period. Meanwhile, tobacco use is down, as is the use of antipsychotics as “chemical restraints” in nursing home and home health care settings. 

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.