An image of a discarded syringe
Unemployment might be one of the factors behind drug-overdose deaths. Elaine Thompson/AP

A new study backs up the notion that overdose deaths are “deaths of despair,” brought on by joblessness, hopelessness, and both physical and emotional pain.

In 2015, more Americans died from drug overdoses than from car accidents and gun homicides combined. That’s according to a startling interactive story published by The New York Times recently, which also noted that since 1990, drug-overdose deaths have increased by 500 percent.

A new study suggests unemployment might be one of the factors behind that dramatic rise. The paper, published by NBER last week, finds that as the unemployment rate increases by one percentage point in a given county, the opioid-death-rate rises by 3.6 percent, and emergency-room visits rise by 7 percent.

Rather than more people getting injured when jobs are scarce, the authors suspect that the increased use of painkillers is a “physical manifestation of mental-health problems that have long been known to rise during periods of economic decline.” Depression and pain are twin agonies, in other words: Not only does depression make people more sensitive to pain, they note, opioids have been shown to help relieve depressive symptoms.

This isn’t the only study that has linked joblessness with painkiller use. In another recent paper, the Princeton University labor economist Alan Krueger found that nearly half of “prime age” men who aren’t in the labor force take pain medication daily. And past studies have found that the unemployed are more likely to use illegal drugs than full-time workers.

These studies lend support to the idea that many opioid overdoses are “deaths of despair,” as the Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton call them—deaths brought on by joblessness, hopelessness, and both physical and emotional pain.

Europeans also suffered joblessness during the recession, but they aren’t overdosing at American levels. Most European countries have stronger social-safety nets, which might soften the trauma of unemployment, as well as socialized health-care systems, in which prescription records tend to be centralized.

In a recent Brookings paper, Case and Deaton are careful to note that pure financial strain doesn’t explain the full “despair deaths” picture. Rather, overdoses, suicides, and alcohol abuse are all driven by what they call “cumulative distress,” or the overall “failure of life to turn out as expected.”

This paper shows that joblessness can be an element of those dashed hopes—even if it’s not the only one.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Downtown Roanoke is pictured.
    Life

    The Small Appalachian City That’s Thriving

    Roanoke, Virginia, has become what many cities of its size, geography, and history want to be. It started by bringing housing to a deserted downtown.

  2. Transportation

    Google Street View Can Reveal How Your Neighborhood Votes

    You can learn a lot about an area just from the cars parked on its streets.

  3. Equity

    What Did and Didn't Make the Final GOP Tax Bill

    Lots of small changes—but one big thing stays the same.

  4. Design

    When Density Isn't Greener

    A new study challenges some widely held assumptions about urban and suburban development.

  5. Environment

    The Story of the Great Lakes in 8 Maps

    The book Third Coast Atlas seeks to illuminate the Great Lakes—America’s “third coast”—through maps, plans, photos, and more.