The substantial and unexpected increase in “deaths of despair” in the US (e.g., deaths from drug overdose, suicide, and alcohol-related liver diseases) reported by economists Case and Deaton in 2015 raises questions about the number and characteristics of US adults potentially living “lives of despair” with these problems.
We used data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions Wave III (NESARC-III) to examine population estimates and characteristics of adults with lifetime history of substance use disorder (SUD) and suicide attempt, or either condition alone, as compared to those with neither.
An estimated 7.2 million adults had both lifetime SUD and suicide attempt and 78.8 million had either. Those with both faced far more psychosocial adversities, familial adverse experiences and psychiatric disorders compared to those with the other two groups, and reported greater mental health service utilization. Multivariable analysis showed that psychiatric multimorbidity and violence were the strongest correlates of having both conditions as compared to neither while those with either condition fell in between.
A substantial number of US adults live with a lifetime SUD and suicide attempt with a multiplicity of additional socioeconomic, psychiatric and familial problems. While their utilization of mental health care service exceeds those with either or neither conditions, quality of life remained much poorer, suggesting that mental health treatment alone may not be enough to mitigate their sufferings, and a combination of both social policy support and quality mental health care may be needed.