Increases in 'deaths of despair' during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Angus C., Buckley C., Tilstra AM., Dowd JB.
OBJECTIVES: The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted mental health, health-related behaviours such as drinking and illicit drug use and the accessibility of health and social care services. How these pandemic shocks affected 'despair'-related mortality in different countries is less clear. This study uses public data to compare deaths from alcohol, drugs and suicide in the United States and the United Kingdom to identify similarities or differences in the impact of the pandemic on important non-COVID causes of death across countries and to consider the public health implications of these trends. STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: Data were taken from publicly available mortality figures for England and Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and the United States of America, 2001-2021, and analysed descriptively through age-standardised and age-specific mortality rates from suicide, alcohol and drug use. RESULTS: Alcohol-specific deaths increased in all countries between 2019 and 2021, most notably in the United States and, to a lesser extent, England and Wales. Suicide rates did not increase markedly during the pandemic in any of the included nations. Drug-related mortality rates rose dramatically over the same period in the United States but not in other nations. CONCLUSIONS: Mortality from 'deaths of despair' during the pandemic has displayed divergent trends between causes and countries. Concerns about increases in deaths by suicide appear to have been unfounded, whereas deaths due to alcohol have risen across the United Kingdom and in the United States and across almost all age groups. Scotland and the United States had similarly high levels of drug-related deaths pre-pandemic, but the differing trends during the pandemic highlight the different underlying causes of these drug death epidemics and the importance of tailoring policy responses to these specific contexts.