Nearly 1 in 3 Americans Have Lost Someone to Overdose

A new survey has found that 32% of adults in the United States know someone who's died of a drug overdose.

As the drug overdose crisis continues to take lives across the U.S., a new survey demonstrates the magnitude of the issue as well as the number of loved ones left behind to grieve — finding that nearly one-third of adults have lost someone to an overdose death.

The survey, led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in JAMA Health Forum, found that roughly 82.7 million individuals in the United States know someone who has died of a fatal drug overdose.

Researchers conducted the research by surveying a nationally representative group of 2,300 Americans in the spring of 2013, finding that nearly one-fifth of survey respondents — representing an estimated 48.9 million adults — have specifically lost a family member or close friend to an overdose.

Unexpected or sudden deaths of loved ones may lead to financial strain, lower productivity, weakened social ties, loneliness, and diminished health across the life course, the study says, and losing someone to an overdose may also be exacerbated by stigma. And yet, limited research has explored the consequences of loss specifically due to drug overdose.

As a result, this study aimed to document not just the impact on the direct victims of the drug overdose crisis, but also on those who knew them — underscoring just how wide-reaching the effects of this public health crisis are.

“The drug overdose crisis is a national tragedy,” said lead author Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, in a statement. “Although large numbers of U.S. adults are bereaved due to overdose, they may not be as visible as other groups who have lost loved ones to less stigmatized health issues.”

Researchers asked respondents about their political party affiliation and how important they viewed addiction as a policy issue. They found that rates of overdose losses were fairly consistent across party lines, and that all respondents who’d experienced such a loss were more likely to see the drug overdose crisis as an important policy issue.

Overdose losses were also reported among all income groups, though the burden was greater on low-income individuals.

About the overdose crisis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one million Americans have died from drug overdoses since the late 1990s, with more than 100,000 deaths per year occuring in the last few years.

And while preliminary data suggests that overdose deaths declined slightly last year for the first time in five years, decreasing 3% from 2022, the estimated number of deaths in 2023 remains extremely high at 108,000.

According to Johns Hopkins, the overdose crisis initially began with prescription opioids such as oxycodone. When doctors stopped prescribing these addictive substances, users turned to heroin.

In recent years, however, the overdose crisis has been largely driven by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which has significantly increased the risk of overdose due to its unpredictability and potency.

The vast majority of overdose deaths in the last two decades have been opioid-related, according to the study.

The issue is far-reaching and has touched many, leading the majority of survey respondents (60%) — including those who have not personally experienced an overdose loss — to agree that addiction is an extremely or very important policy issue. Those who had experienced an overdose loss were 37% more likely to view it this way.

The authors said the fact that drug overdose loss is a common, shared experience among sociodemographic groups in the U.S. population may help to reduce stigma regarding overdose death, unite otherwise disconnected groups, and mobilize leaders to advance policy solutions.

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