The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Crises, and No Help

Jul 19, 2021

Last year, 93,000 people in this country died of drug overdoses—the most ever. This was almost 30% more than in 2019. To put this number in context, it is more than ten times the number who died of overdoses during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in 1988.

Some of the increase in deaths is certainly due to the use of fentanyl, a dangerously powerful drug that is increasingly mixed with many other drugs.

But more lethal drugs can only account for part of this, because the increase in deaths is just the tip of the substance abuse iceberg that has been made worse by the isolation this country imposed in response to the pandemic. One study found that alcohol consumption went up by about 14% in 2020 compared to 2019. In Colorado, the first state to legalize marijuana, sales passed two billion dollars, up from 1.7 billion in 2019 and the most in any year since the drug was legalized in 2014. Other states that have legalized marijuana saw similarly large increases in sales. And for every overdose death, how many more people are addicted to opioids or other dangerous drugs?

That increasing numbers of people are addicted to substances, or at any rate cannot cope with reality sober, goes hand in hand with the increase in mental health problems of all sorts. According to a June 2020 survey, 25% of all adolescents reported that they had thought about killing themselves in the last month. Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts for those 12 to 17 went up 31% in 2020 compared to 2019.

In the midst of this crisis, the already patchy network of substance abuse treatment programs and mental health providers has fallen apart. Holly Wheeler, who runs an organization that links Indiana families to resources, said, “We’re in a crisis situation. It’s buckling under the weight of all of these people who really, truly, need treatment.”

Across huge swaths of the country, there is literally no treatment available: for instance, the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan does not have a single child psychiatrist or pediatric psychiatric bed. One result: increasing numbers of people, especially children, spend days warehoused in an emergency room waiting for a psychiatric bed to open up. In Massachusetts, for instance, this “emergency room boarding” of children in mental health crisis increased at least 200% from 2019 to 2020.

It is already a damning indictment of this society that so many people—including children—are thrown into mental health crises, that so many turn to drugs and alcohol, abusing them often to the point of death.

That this society—that has never once run out of money for a bank bailout or corporate tax break—cannot even provide the most basic care and treatment? It is the choice a tiny minority of filthy rich people make to put profit over human life.