SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
A former White House economist is warning that social isolation during the pandemic may have contributed to a rise in deaths from drug overdose, suicide and alcohol. That's an argument the Trump administration often made against government stay-at-home orders. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Karen Butcher's son Matthew struggled for years with an addiction to opioids. She's convinced the pandemic made it worse.
KAREN BUTCHER: One day, you're a bartender. And you're serving people and having a great time at it. And the next day, the doors are closed, and then COVID hits. It was the perfect storm.
HORSLEY: The restaurant in Scott County, Ky., where Matthew worked as a bartender actually closed before the pandemic. But then all the other restaurants in the area shut down, as well. Butcher says her son was increasingly isolated.
BUTCHER: He was lonely. He was depressed. He didn't have a reason anymore to get out and keep going. You know, the job was gone. And then all this money flows in because of unemployment. So you're isolated. You have lots of money, and your coping skill has always been drug use.
HORSLEY: Matthew died of a drug overdose alone in his apartment last May. Ordinarily, a spike in unemployment doesn't lead to a spike in overdose deaths. People who aren't working generally don't have a lot of money to buy drugs. But University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan says the COVID recession is unusual. Federal relief payments put more money in people's pockets last spring, just as many of the usual ways to spend it were closed off.
CASEY MULLIGAN: Vacations or eating out or anything group-oriented - going to a sports game, concert. And that kind of left the sort of things that you do by yourself. Taking opioids is something that people can do by themselves.
HORSLEY: Mulligan, who was a White House economist in the Trump administration, argues in a recent working paper that increased isolation during the pandemic may have contributed to rising deaths of despair - that is, suicides, alcohol-related deaths and especially drug overdoses.
MULLIGAN: It's not a happy time when you're not with other people. I mean, most people are social. The pandemic has been antisocial. Whether it's a voluntary quarantine or a mandatory is a separate question, but people have definitely been alone more.
HORSLEY: And a person who accidentally overdoses alone may be at greater risk of dying since there's no one else around to call for help or administer life-saving medicine like naloxone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned last month overdose deaths may be accelerating. But Princeton economist Anne Case, who co-authored a book called "Deaths Of Despair," is wary of putting too much blame on the pandemic. She notes that overdose deaths were already climbing sharply the year before the coronavirus took hold. Case suspects a bigger problem is the nationwide spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
ANNE CASE: There's this horribly dangerous, deadly drug on the market that is responsible for this explosion of drug overdoses.
HORSLEY: Fentanyl used to be rare west of the Mississippi, but it's now found throughout the country. Chris Permoda overdosed on fentanyl in Arizona last July, just over a month after his mother drove him home from prison.
MARY PERMODA: When they found him, they found one needle out of the package, so that was the first time he had used since he got out. And he died - first dose.
HORSLEY: While the powerful opioid was the direct cause of her son's death, Mary Permoda has no doubt the pandemic was also a factor.
PERMODA: Absolutely. Oh, my God, absolutely.
HORSLEY: Permoda says her son tried desperately to find an in-person support group last year, even suggesting he might start his own meeting in a parking lot if necessary. Zoom counseling and online support groups just weren't working for him.
PERMODA: He craved being a part of a group that understood what he was going through in-person. And it just couldn't happen. So yes, I believe it impacted it greatly.
HORSLEY: Both Mary Permoda and Karen Butcher have found their own comfort and support through a group called Parents of Addicted Loved Ones, or PAL. Butcher says for her, it's been a lifeline.
BUTCHER: Everybody needs a group of people who are walking a similar path. We laugh. We cry. We pray. We learn, and we become a family who understands it's a common language.
HORSLEY: Permoda says this family, united by their loved one's addiction, is growing all too quickly.
PERMODA: This is an epidemic second to coronavirus, I'm here to tell you.
HORSLEY: It's too soon to know how much the coronavirus pandemic may have added to the toll of addiction and drug overdose. Princeton's Anne Case warns while vaccines will eventually provide relief from COVID-19, finding a way to immunize the country against deaths of despair may be even harder.
CASE: Once COVID is in the rearview mirror, we still have a lot of work to do to try to bring down the numbers of people who are dying annually in the U.S. from suicide, drug overdose and from alcohol.
HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCCAMMON: If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.