Since the coronavirus pandemic forced hundreds of millions of Americans into lockdown, mental health advocates have expressed concerns that isolation would create its own healthcare crisis: “Deaths of despair” from suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses.
A recent study on deaths of despair by the Well Being Trust, a national foundation dedicated to advancing the mental health of the nation, predicted the impact of the lockdown could lead to 75,000 such deaths over the next decade. Now mental health advocates are looking for ways to undo the potential damage.
In 2016, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich joined with former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Rhode Island) and progressive activist Van Jones to create Advocates for Opioid Recovery (AOR) — a nonprofit that promotes interventions to deal with the overdose crisis. Gingrich has a new book called Trump and the American Future, which includes a chapter on ending deaths of despair and dealing with the pandemic.
InsideSources recently caught up with Gingrich to get his insights on how America should address the unintended downside of the national COVID-19 lockdown strategy.
What made you decide to become an adviser to AOR?
“I have many personal friends who are in recovery and understand the daily struggles. The brain science is clear, and it angers me that policy hasn’t kept pace with science. I’ve been actively involved in mental health issues and parity for a long time, going back to my Speakership. Increasingly we’ve looked at what’s become an explosion of opioid challenges.
“When [former Democratic Rhode Island Rep.] Patrick Kennedy came to me and showed me that there’s a chance that this project — Advocates for Opioid Recovery — could move the understanding of this country to get on pace with the science, and that we have an opportunity to save thousands of lives by getting to better treatment patterns, I realized this was a critical moment for a productive investment of time and effort to truly move the system.
“And we have. Since we launched AOR in 2016, we have successfully helped advocate for expanded evidence-based treatment in the CARA and 21st Century Cures Acts in 2016, along with the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act in 2018.”
What can you tell us about deaths of despair during the time of the pandemic?
“Deaths of despair, including suicides and overdoses, have been on the rise for years. And unfortunately, a number of factors we’re seeing during this pandemic — including job loss and disruptions in treatment and community services because of social distancing guidelines — are likely to put people at even higher risk for developing symptoms of mental illness and substance use disorder.
“For those living with addiction, a lack of social connectivity or connectivity to behavioral health providers is linked to depression, anxiety, suicidality, increased use, and re-initiation of drug or alcohol use. That’s exactly the situation we’re facing during this pandemic. It’s imperative that we break down all barriers to treatment and support services, whether that means funding opioid treatment programs or making sure that people have the tools they need to access care via telehealth.”
How can the situation be improved?
“We need to make sure that people continue to have access to evidence-based treatment, no matter where they are in their recovery journey. Millions of people living with or in recovery from addiction have had their routines abruptly interrupted due to the COVID-19 crisis and are now fighting this battle on their own.
“The next COVID-19 response package will be incomplete without funding specifically for addiction treatment and recovery.”