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Deaths of despair also affect Native American Communities, study shows

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This next story takes a new look at how Americans for more than a decade have been dying younger than people in other developed countries. We want to warn you, this report will discuss suicide. Researchers have attributed the higher death rates in the U.S. to what they call deaths of despair, from suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholic liver disease. A new study in The Lancet indicates these deaths have affected American Indian and Alaska Native communities far more than previously reported. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee has more.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Back in 2015, two Princeton economists published a study showing that deaths among middle-aged white Americans had risen dramatically between 1999 and 2013.

JOSEPH FRIEDMAN: It means premature mortality.

CHATTERJEE: Dr. Joseph Friedman is a physician and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

FRIEDMAN: It's an age group where - ideally, no one should die in that age group, certainly not of drug overdose and suicide.

CHATTERJEE: But when he and his colleagues took a closer look at the data, they realized that these deaths of despair weren't just affecting white communities.

FRIEDMAN: The whole sort of premise of the deaths-of-despair idea that this is unique to white communities really didn't stand up when you actually took a careful look at the data.

CHATTERJEE: He and his colleagues found that the rise in midlife deaths was much higher in American Indian and Alaska Native people, a group that had been entirely left out of the original 2015 study.

FRIEDMAN: In the same period that deaths among white Americans did go up by about 9%, deaths among Native Americans went up by 30%.

CHATTERJEE: Friedman's collaborator Joseph Gone is a psychologist at Harvard. He's also a member of the Aaniiih/Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana.

JOSEPH GONE: The entire narrative about deaths of despair among white Americans depended on the invisibility, or, we might say, the erasure of Indigenous presence and visibility in those data sets. And that's a problem from our vantage point.

CHATTERJEE: He says the recent rise in deaths among white Americans is, of course, alarming. But the factors driving these deaths have affected American Indian and Alaska Native people for much longer.

GONE: Indian country problems rise and fall with economy like everyone else's, but we're just used to these lack of resources and opportunities for a whole bunch of reasons that go way back.

CHATTERJEE: Spero Manson is Pembina Chippewa from North Dakota and directs the University of Colorado Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health. He wasn't involved in the new study.

SPERO MANSON: If you look at matters of poverty, education, decreased employment opportunities, restricted access to other kinds of resources, they're very powerful and widely present in American Indian and Alaska Native communities.

CHATTERJEE: But, he adds, addressing deaths of despair will also need a focus on the successes of Native communities. For example, these communities had high COVID-19 vaccination rates. Manson says reducing deaths of despair will also require harnessing the strength and resilience of Native communities and supporting them with resources.

Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.

FADEL: If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call or text the 988 hotline - just those three numbers, 9-8-8. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.