EDITORIAL: Suicides, overdoses reflect need for more mental health resources

You know we have a problem in this country when the number of self-inflicted deaths is high enough to reduce our overall life expectancy.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month released reports indicating that U.S. life expectancy has been falling in recent years, after decades of increased longevity.

“Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide,” CDC Director Robert R. Redfield said in a published statement, adding that “these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

Some 2.8 million people died in this country in 2017, about 70,000 more than the previous year, the center reported. Of those deaths, about 47,000 were listed as suicides. Another 70,000 people died from drug overdoses last year, continuing the deadliest overdose epidemic in U.S. history.

“(W)e must all work together to reverse this trend and help ensure that all Americans live longer and healthier lives,” Redfield said.

Our life expectancy fell slightly from 78.7 years in 2016 to 78.6 in 2017 and has been trending downward since 2015; it’s the longest period that is not tied to any major pandemic of disease.

Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, told The Associated Press the data coincide with polls that show a growing sense of pessimism and hopelessness driven by financial struggles and divisive politics, “and … that leads to drug use, it leads potentially to suicide,” Dietz said.

The growing rate of self-inflicted deaths in the overall population adds to the already alarming rate among military veterans, and it indicates a growing need for access to mental health care in our country.

It’s also worth noting that many of those who have committed mass killings in recent years have been diagnosed or suspected of having a need for mental health treatment.

Of course, it’s easy to say that people need better access to such care, but getting it isn’t so easy.

For starters, we must continue to work to remove negative popular perceptions regarding mental health and those who need or use it. Public service campaigns would be valuable in this regard.

Such campaigns not only should encourage those who need help to get it, but they also need to help address the difficulty many people have in finding that help.

We should encourage a growth in careers in mental health research, treatment and counseling. Universities would do well to expand and promote their courses and degree plans in such careers, so that high school students and young adults recognize such offerings as valid career options.

Any progress in this area would be a worthy investment in reversing an unfortunate trend that, like those who are falling victim to it, seems eminently preventable.