Millennial generation rocked by deaths from ‘diseases of despair’

The number of Americans dying from drugs, alcohol and suicide continues to climb. While the rising death toll is cross-generational, a new report shows millennials are especially affected.

Alcohol- and drug-induced fatalities and suicide nearly tripled in the last two decades among adults ages 18 to 34, according to a report from the nonprofit Trust for America’s Health and the national foundation Well Being Trust.

Data collected from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and analyzed by the two public health groups found the rate of alcohol-induced deaths doubled for 18- to 34-year-olds between 1999 and 2017. Between 2007 and 2017, Americans in the same demographic saw a 108% increase in drug-related deaths and a 35% increase in suicides.

“Substance abuse and suicide-related deaths among millennials have been devastating,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America’s Health.

“These deaths are often referred to as diseases of despair, and there are a number of specific challenges and stresses that affect millennials.”

Auerbach points to the generation’s economic challenges — especially for those who “came of age” during the recession. More millennials have outstanding student loan debt, compared with earlier generations, Pew Research Center reports. And the amount they owe tends to be greater — sometimes by nearly 50%.

“They’re facing significant problems in terms of housing costs. And also, millennials don’t have some of the supports that have helped other generations as they’ve dealt with their own stresses,” Auerbach said.

“Millennials are less likely to be married, less likely to live in the communities where their families live, more likely to depend upon social media for communication — and they experience a good deal of social isolation as a result.”

The report offers several policy recommendations to reverse the trends, starting with comprehensive health insurance and access to behavioral health services. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of Americans ages 25 to 34 lacked health insurance in 2016.

The report also stresses the importance of reaching millennials “where they are likely to be,” including at colleges, technical schools, reproductive health clinics and on social media. And Auerbach said now is the time to start considering the next generation.

“[Millennials] are becoming parents, and so [we’re] thinking about the supports necessary to make sure that their children get the kind of preventive interventions that are necessary,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges public health officials face when it comes to setting recommended policies in place is the public’s perception of millennials, who are often portrayed as entitled.

“There is, I think, something of an inclination to think of millennials as being in the prime of life, not needing the kinds of supports that maybe other generations might need,” Auerbach said.

“And so, we hope this report is a wake-up call — that this is a population that is at elevated risk, and special attention is needed to deal with the very particular circumstances that affect this generation.”

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