Black and brown communities saw the worst spikes in overdose deaths during the pandemic

We can't ignore this any longer.

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Racial Disparities
Originally Published: 

Most people who haven’t dealt with the trauma of drug addiction firsthand (or secondhand) see it as a trenchant, simply black and white issue. Of course, it’s not. Factors such as stigma, socioeconomic status, and access to mental health services can profoundy affect a person’s ability to fight addiction. What’s been clear for ages is now more often backed by data: that Black and brown people have been disproportionately hurt by drug misuse. During the pandemic, a new study finds, our communities have experienced the highest increase in drug overdose deaths.

The JAMA Psychiatry study’s authors, who used publicly available data from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Health Statistics, found that since 2015, overdose deaths have been rising most rapidly among Black and Hispanic/Latino communities, joining an already staggering drug overdose crisis among Native American communities in America.

The findings showed, however, that the highest rate of overdose deaths belonged to Native American or Alaska Natives at 41.4 deaths per 100,000 people, a whopping 30.8% higher than the rate for white Americans. Black Americans came in second place at 36.8 deaths per 100,000, from 24.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2019. That’s 16.3% higher than the rate for white people, which was 31.6 per 100,000.

What’s concerning here is that the rate for Black people increased more sharply than any other group. Sadly, Native American communities have been suffering with high rates of addiction for decades, with many health experts (and people with common sense) linking this to a “coping mechanism” for the theft of their land, resources, and freedoms.

The difference in reported overdose deaths between Black and white Americans might not seem like a big one, but if you extrapolate that data to the population of America, the math works out to about 17,353 non-multiracial Black people dying of overdoses in one year, according to 2020 census data. Further, while drug overdose rates among Hispanic or Latinx people was the lowest among groups in the study at 17.3 overdoses per 100,00, the percentage increase from before the pandemic was 40.1%. This proves that while drug misuse increased for all demographics, the situation is far more dire for people of color.

“The pandemic has since disproportionately worsened a wide range of health, social, and economic outcomes among racial and ethnic minoritized communities,” the abstract of the study reads. “Careful attention to examining these trends by race and ethnicity is therefore warranted.” They’re right — recent focus has been put on the disconnect between minority communities and access to mental health services, particularly amongst groups like Black men and other marginalized communities.

Drug addiction in America (and most of the world) has been seen as a personal failing, and not what it really is, much of the time: a product of racism, bad politics, evil pharmaceutical companies, and ignorance of the causes and exacerbating circumstances that keep drugs seemingly the only thing to turn to for those afflicted. It’s only through understanding the data and the causes for this epidemic that we can grow as a people, as a society, and as a global community.