Suicides, alcohol poisoning – and drug overdoses fueled in part by the opioid crisis – are the leading causes of rising death rates among white people in California, according to a new study that found the trend is widespread in rural areas of the state.
Generally, death rates for people of color remain higher than for whites, but the study released by The California Endowment said death rates have been decreasing among blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders in California and are increasing for whites.
A preliminary study by the nonprofit last year found white death rates had risen in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. The new study looked statewide and found rural Northern California counties also have been among those most affected by higher white death rates.
And efforts to stop the increase in white death rates are falling short, the research found.
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The endowment, a private statewide health foundation, said 21,350 young and middle-aged whites lost their lives between 1995 to 2014 in what have been called “deaths of despair.”
The sad part of this report is these deaths are all preventable. These are not deaths from cancer – these are deaths from drug abuse, suicide.
Sarah Reyes, The California Endowment director of communications for Healthy Communities
“The sad part of this report is these deaths are all preventable. These are not deaths from cancer – these are deaths from drug abuse, suicide,” said Sarah Reyes, The California Endowment’s director of communications for Healthy Communities.
The deaths are a result of “when people feel a sense of loss and feel like they don’t belong,” Reyes said. “They feel like they don’t matter. At the base of this report are people who don’t have access to services and don’t see opportunity for them to move forward, for themselves and their families. That hole of despair gets deeper and deeper.”
According to the new study:
▪ Death rates from drug overdoses doubled between 1995 and 2014 among young and middle-aged whites in California.
▪ The death rate from alcohol poisoning or binge drinking more than quadrupled among younger whites and increased twelvefold among those ages 40-64.
▪ The rate of suicides among middle-aged whites increased by 37 percent after 2000.
The preliminary report, released last year, said the death rate for whites in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties was almost 40 percent higher than the overall white death rate in California from 2010-14. Accidental drug poisonings for middle-aged adults since the 1990s had risen 212.3 percent in Fresno County and 163.7 percent in Kern County. County. Drug overdoses for white men ages 25 to 34 in Kern County had increased 248 percent. Suicides in the region had increased 121 percent, and alcohol poisoning had increased fifteenfold.
Reyes said she sees little being done to reverse the increasing white death rates in Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties.
“Poverty continues to increase and the negative health issues continue to plague us,” she said. “As far as I know, at least in the counties in the Central Valley, nothing has been done proactively to deal with these issues.”
Addressing the economy and alleviating the hardships responsible for chronic stress may do more to alleviate desperation and may save more lives than focusing exclusively on symptoms.
The California Endowment study on death rates for white Californians
People cope through drug and alcohol use and through suicide, she said. “We need to provide people an opportunity to feel and believe that they do matter and that they do have the right to live a healthy life.”
Deaths from overdoses stand out and are likely an offshoot of the opioid crisis, said Dr. Steven Woolf, the lead author of the study. But opioid addiction is just one factor in the increase in the death rate for whites, he said. The study suggests “what is going on here is related to the living conditions in those locations and can’t be blamed on opioids specifically,” Woolf said.
The study said the dramatic rise in opioid addiction and fatal overdoses have rightfully alarmed the public and policymakers, but addressing drug abuse alone will not stem the rise in death rates.
Instead, the study said: “Addressing the economy and alleviating the hardships responsible for chronic stress may do more to alleviate desperation and may save more lives than focusing exclusively on symptoms.”