Fatal Overdoses, ER Visits Rise With Unemployment Rate

By Victoria Kim 04/20/17

The link between economic hardship and drug overdoses is being studied by a team of researchers. 

A patient emergency being handled by a team of medical professionals in front of an ambulance.

What’s fueling the rise in opioid deaths? A recent report by Olga Khazan for The Atlantic points to economic reasons—namely, unemployment. 

A study published this month in the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showed that in a given county, as the unemployment rate grows by 1 percentage point, the rate of opioid deaths grows by 3.6% and emergency room visits increase by 7%.

The authors of this research suspect that this has to do with a cluster of factors related to economic hardship that foster depression, heightened pain sensitivity, and thus, more opioid use—to soothe the “physical manifestation of mental health problems that have long been known to rise during periods of economic decline.” 

But unemployment is, inevitably, just one piece of the puzzle. Writer Khazan cites Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University, who say economic hardship is just one part of the overall distress that people feel from the “failure of life to turn out as expected.” 

The professors study the rise of middle-aged mortality among non-Hispanic white Americans. They say that “deaths of despair,” or deaths by drugs, alcohol and suicide, are partly fueling this increase in mortality. 

This cycle of joblessness, hopelessness, and physical and emotional pain is driving fatal overdoses and suicides.

More studies have found that unemployed people are more likely to use illegal drugs than full-time workers, Khazan notes.

Another Princeton economist, Alan Krueger, found that almost half of men aged 25-54 who are not in the labor force use pain medication every day—two-thirds are prescription pain medication. 

In his October 2016 paper, Krueger said his findings justify the need to expand health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act—which could result in a greater number of pain management interventions that could “potentially be helpful.”

He concludes: "Addressing the decades-long slide in labor force participation by prime age men should be a national priority."

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States. Out of 54,404 fatal drug overdoses in 2015—20,101 of them involved prescription painkillers, while 12,990 of them involved heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr