“Diseases of despair” – health conditions some experts tie to the hopelessness that can accompany economic distress – are on the rise in Minnesota. The three leading diseases in the category are alcohol, prescription drug and illegal drug overdose; suicide; and alcoholic liver disease/cirrhosis of the liver.

“The alarm is growing louder year after year as we continue to see the costly impact of ‘diseases of despair’ such as chronic pain, depression, chemical dependency and suicide,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger.

According to MDH, the 637 drug overdose deaths last year were nearly six times the number reported in 2000; drug overdose deaths increased 9.2 percent just from 2015 to 2106.

Minnesota is not alone in dealing with the health challenges of poverty. A recent study of diseases of despair in Appalachia conducted by the University of Chicago shows the impact of extreme economic distress. The 13 states that make up Appalachia have household incomes that are 80 percent of the U.S. average; 17 percent of Appalachians live below the poverty level.

Some key findings from the study:

  • “In 1999, the all-cause mortality rate in Appalachia was 12 percent higher than the rate in the non-Appalachian U.S.—by 2015 this difference had increased to 32 percent.”
  • “In 2015, 11,187 deaths among 15 to 64 year olds in Appalachia were attributable to diseases of despair. In 2015, the 15 to 64 year old population in the Appalachian Region represented 7.8 percent of the total population in the United States for this age group, yet contributed to 10.3 percent of the total deaths from diseases of despair.”
  • “In 2015, the overdose mortality rate among individuals ages 15 to 64 was 65 percent higher in the Appalachian Region compared to the rest of the nation—there were 35.4 deaths per 100,000 population in the Region, compared to 21.5 deaths per 100,000 population.”
  • “Males in Appalachia between the ages of 25 and 44 experienced notable disparities compared to non-Appalachian males. In Appalachia, the overdose mortality rate was 78 percent higher among 35 to 44 year olds and 72 percent higher among 25 to 34 year olds compared to non-Appalachian males. The burden in the Region was also highest for these two age groups, at 61.0 deaths per 100,000 population and 61.9 deaths per 100,000, respectively.”

In Minnesota, several initiatives have been launched to stem the rising tide of opioid addiction, according to MDH. Among these is making access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone (brand name Narcan) more available; developing opioid prescribing guidelines for Minnesota; and, upgrading the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program to include alerts for prescribers about patients who may be misusing opioids.

MDH also has created a new “data dashboard” to consolidate tracking information on opioid abuse and consolidate information. According to Commissioner Ehlinger, the dashboard will help health officials and others “better work together to help Minnesotans learn about prevention and treatment options, and to avoid the trap of drug abuse.”