Substance Abuse, Mental Illness Deaths Have Skyrocketed in Rural America

Access to treatment could have prevented many deaths in cash-strapped communities.
December 16, 2016, 6:15pm
Image: Casey Fleiser/Flickr

The number of people in the US dying from mental disorders and substance abuse has multiplied over the past 30 years.

A study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed those deaths increased about 200 percent in more than 2,000 US counties, with an increase of 1,000 percent in some regions of Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio. These statistics paint a startling picture of life in rural America, especially in struggling Appalachia.

"While the leading causes of death are similar across counties, we found massive disparities in the rates at which people are dying among causes and communities," explained lead author Laura Dwyer-Lindgren in a statement. "For causes of death with effective treatments, inequalities in mortality rates spotlight areas where access to essential health services and quality of care needs to be improved."

The study, conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in Seattle, reviewed deaths related to 21 illnesses—from cancer to HIV—to get a thorough picture of the death rate from certain causes across the country.

Image: JAMA

The study pointed to some clear disparities. For example, the Kusilvak Census Area in Alaska had the highest mortality rate increase at 131 percent, while Manhattan's death rate dropped 72 percent. As for Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio, some counties saw a rapid increase in deaths due to schizophrenia, alcohol use disorders, drug use disorders and eating disorders, according to the study. Nationally, these diseases killed 814,391 people from 1980 to 2014, and the rates increased through that time in nearly every country surveyed.

"We know that unequal medical access and quality of care create health disparities in the US for many causes of death, while other causes are linked to risk factors or policies," Dr. Ali Mokdad, professor of Global Health at IHME and study co-author said in a statement. "Indeed, this study will inform the debate on how to improve the health of our nation."

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