Real-time data drove our COVID response; we need the same for overdoses and suicides | The Kennedy Forum

Real-time data drove our COVID response; we need the same for overdoses and suicides
June 29, 2021

Since COVID-19 first became a part of our national vocabulary over a year and a half ago, the U.S. has adapted to many ‘new normals’ in government, health care, social services, and more. We saw people come together from various professional communities with one common goal: saving lives. The pandemic also proved that we can address big challenges when we make doing so a national priority.

For example, at the foundation of our national response to COVID-19 was data. From the first maps tracking single digit case numbers state by state, to testing numbers, vaccination rates, and daily death tolls, we went from having almost no timely data to a steady stream of near real-time data that allowed public health officials, lawmakers, and the general public to track trends, identify hot spots, and inform life-or-death policy decisions.

The concept is simple, really. Identify where risk is high, take appropriate action in those areas, and prevent deaths to the best of our ability. Taking this proactive approach makes a large, unruly problem much more manageable. 

That’s why it’s imperative we apply it to our nation’s mental health and addiction crisis as soon as possible.

In 2019, the most recent year for which we have complete data, 70,630 Americans died due to drug overdoses and over 47,000 died by suicide. Provisional data for 2020 indicates that overdose deaths exceeded a record-breaking 90,000, and while projected suicide rates went down slightly, they increased among certain BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities. Clearly, an urgent response is warranted. 

Often, the most consequential data that we have for mental health and substance use disorders comes in the form of death rates, which are published one to two years after collection. These indicators paint a clear, and often stark, picture of where we are, but leave no room for prevention or even intervention before it’s too late. 

We need data to be more readily available in order to intervene in a timely manner and save lives. We also need to work to standardize how mortality data is collected and reported – and identify jurisdictions that slow down data reporting and give them resources to improve. Doing so will help us identify trends and hotspots more quickly and take action that can ultimately reduce health care utilization and costs associated with emergency room visits and more intensive treatment. It’s a strategic way to address a constantly evolving issue that’s been swept under the rug for far too long. 

In generations, mental health and addiction have not been a priority. Data was never prioritized because these issues were seen as moral failings rather than essential components of overall health.  

But the tides are turning. Stigma is dissipating and more and more people are speaking out about their experiences—celebrities, politicians, professional athletes, and others. COVID itself also shined a desperately needed spotlight on the importance of mental health and the ways in which mental health impacts physical health. 

True parity for mental health is on the horizon, but our government must now step up to the plate and declare data a priority rather than an afterthought. Having standardized and timely tracking, measuring, and reporting on suicides and overdoses will be a game changer for empowering public health officials and health care providers as they respond to mental health and addiction challenges across the nation. Data will also help to inform policymakers and health plans as they make decisions about resource allocation and coverage. 

We know that creating this type of data infrastructure is possible. It’s time for every advocate out there to use their voice in calling for action. We CAN emerge from this challenging time with better insights, better protocols, and better strategies to save lives.