For decades, the life expectancy in the United States rose steadily due to improvements in vaccination rates, access to healthcare, and maternal mortality. Now, for the first time since the 1960s, the overall life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the second year in a row. The cause? The opioid crisis that swept across the country over the past decade continues to ravage both urban and rural communities. Millennials are particularly hit hard by the opioid epidemic. This lead to a sharp spike in the death rate in this age demographic. There needs to be a discussion about the opioid crisis among millennials, and how they are being affected.
The Opioid Crisis Among Millennials
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released mortality (death) statistics for 2016, revealing an astonishing uptick in death rates among Millennials. In 2016, there were 129 deaths for every 100,000 adults aged 25 to 34. Tragically, these results mark the highest death rate for young adults since the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the mid-1990s. Opioids appear to drive this elevated death rate as Millennials overdose in large numbers across the country.
Even more startling than the overall death statistics is the trend in mortality rates over time. Following the HIV/AIDS crisis, death rates dropped to record lows throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. However, over the two years from 2014 to 2016, the death rate for the 25-34 age range jumped by 19%. Rates for people aged 15-24 and 35-44 also rose, though less dramatically. Perhaps most alarming is that this increase in death rate for Millennials occurred on a backdrop of overall improvements in longevity among older Americans, suggesting that the opioid epidemic uniquely affects Millennials more than other demographic groups.
What Is Driving Millennials’ Overdose Death Rates?
The roots of the opioid epidemic are complex. The rise in opioid addiction mirrors a similar rise in rates of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Recent research shows that up to 44% of college students experience symptoms of depression. In addition, mental health visits increased 16% from 2000 to 2012.
Unfortunately, Millennials often lack useful coping tools to manage stress and professional support to deal with their mental health concerns. Many Millennials grew up in homes with two working parents who had little time or attention to help them cultivate emotional resilience. The easy availability of smartphones, TVs, and other technological devices provided distractions. However, they couldn’t replace the emotional support of parents, teachers, or close friends. As a result, many Millennials failed to develop effective coping strategies. Adding student loans, consumer debt, and weak employment opportunities further compounded their emotional distress.
Opioids: A Way to Cope
These social factors explain why many Millennials feel misunderstood, lonely, and unheard. In many cases, they haven’t developed the emotional resilience, self-esteem, and feelings of security to help them successfully navigate life’s challenges. Without these coping skills and learning resources, they often turn to alternative methods to manage stressful circumstances. The availability of opioid painkillers, partially fueled by physician overprescribing, provides a temporary coping method or even a false sense of relief. Taking pain pills numbs emotional pain, making it easier to get through the day. However, over the long term, individuals become physically dependent on the drugs. Therefore, finding that avoiding their emotional pain isn’t an effective solution for distress, but an added serious issue that places their lives at risk. By then, opioid addiction takes a physical and emotional hold on their being making it extremely difficult to break free.
Understanding the root causes of the opioid crisis demonstrates that focusing on the drugs or the addiction consequences themselves isn’t enough. By accurately diagnosing and treating the underlying cause of opioid addiction, we make actual progress in the fight against the opioid epidemic.
Combating the Opioid Epidemic
One of the biggest problems facing the public health community is a lack of understanding of how to respond effectively to an opioid crisis of this proportion. As Millennials overdose in large numbers, local communities have been caught flat-footed in their response. State and local government call for increased federal funding to fight the crisis, yet politicians argue over the best ways in which to allocate funds.
An effective response to the opioid epidemic must be comprehensive in nature. While boosting funding for law enforcement efforts may help to decrease the distribution of heroin or opioid painkillers, it does little to help individuals currently suffering from opioid addiction. Instead, we need effective opioid treatments that do more than slap a Band-Aid on the problem.
There are two major functions of an effective treatment program for opioid addiction. The first is to help the individual withdraw from opioids safely and effectively. Trying to quit opioids “cold turkey” can be psychologically challenging and medically unsafe. Instead, affected individuals should undergo detoxification in a medically supervised setting such as that offered by the Waismann Method.
Secondly, drug treatment centers are not the cure for all. An effective treatment course must address the root causes of opioid addiction. This means delving into the psychological trauma or pain that led a person to start using drugs in the first place. By expanding access to individualized mental health care, people can better manage depression, anxiety, trauma, and loss, which can lower the need for self-medication. Furthermore, adequate emotional support can replace a person’s reliance on opioids to numb pain by learning more effective coping strategies. Together, medical detoxification and supportive aftercare to address emotional distress often provide the most successful solutions for helping individuals maintain long-term sobriety.