Drug overdose deaths have devastating impact on friends, relatives, study finds

A RAND Corp. study found some 125 million American adults know at least one person who died by overdose. For many, it was a devastating loss. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
1 of 2 | A RAND Corp. study found some 125 million American adults know at least one person who died by overdose. For many, it was a devastating loss. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

NEW YORK, Feb. 21 (UPI) -- More than 40% of Americans know someone who died of a drug overdose, and about one-third of them say it upended their lives, a new study says.

The results of the study by RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization in Santa Monica, Calif., were published Wednesday in the American Journal of Public Health.


In reviewing a national representative survey of American adults, researchers noted that the lifetime exposure to an overdose death is more common among women than men.

It also is more frequent among married participants than unmarried counterparts, U.S.-born survey respondents than immigrants and people living in urban settings as opposed to those in rural areas.

The rates of exposure were significantly higher in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont) and in the East South Central region (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee) than in other parts of the nation.


"Overdose bereavement is very common and often has a negative impact on well-being," the study's lead author, Alison Athey, an associate behavioral scientist at RAND, told UPI via email.

"Efforts to help people grieve overdose deaths may be an important part of overdose prevention programs and policies."

So far, however, the clinical and public health response has neglected the needs of millions of overdose loss survivors, she said. The study's findings call for more research into the prevalence and consequences of overdose loss, especially among groups that are disproportionately affected.

"Many grass-roots efforts to address overdose bereavement are led by people who have lost someone to overdose," Athey said. "They deserve support from researchers, health systems, public health and policy leaders."

That type of support could be an important part of turning the tide of overdose deaths.

Researchers asked 2,072 adults who participate in the RAND American Life Panel about whether they knew someone who had died of a drug overdose and to explain how the death affected their lives.

Results were weighted based on participants' demographics, so that the findings reflect the characteristics of the U.S. adult population, Athey said, adding that "census data were used to produce estimates of the number of U.S adults who knew someone who died by overdose and of the impact of these losses."


Of the respondents, 42.4% reported personally knowing at least one person who died by overdose, translating to some 125 million American adults who have encountered such a loss.

The study found that 13% of those who replied had experienced a disruption in their lives from an overdose loss. More than 4% of survey respondents conveyed that the loss caused a lingering significant or devastating effect.

In 2022, more than 109,000 people died from a drug overdose, and more than 1.1 million overdose deaths have been reported since 2000, according to the researchers.

The researchers surveyed a relatively small number of people, making it difficult to apply the results to an entire population. But they should be commended for broaching a topic that doesn't receive much attention -- the emotional fallout on those left behind, Dr. Kevin Zacharoff, a clinical assistant professor and anesthesiologist at Stony Brook University's Renaissance School of Medicine in Stony Brook, N.Y., told UPI in a telephone interview.

"More people are impacted than we might think," said Zacharoff, who directs a pain and addiction course. He cited a societal burden from overdose deaths, saying, "There's a potential for a much larger ripple effect than we might be imagining."


The researchers "highlight a crucial, yet overlooked, vulnerable group -- those who have lost someone by overdose death," said Dr. Nidal Moukaddam, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Future studies should involve children dealing with the loss of an individual to overdose.

"The loss can trigger further family instability in addition to personal grief," Moukaddam said. "Those factors, in turn, can promote and exacerbate intergenerational substance use."

Dr. Jody Glance, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, said this is the first study she has seen that demonstrates "the wide-reaching effects of drug overdose on survivors on such a broad level."

The study also represents "a first step toward tracking outcomes and developing interventions to support people who are dealing with this type of traumatic loss," said Glance, who also is clinical chief of addiction medicine services at UPMC Western Behavioral Health in Pittsburgh.

"People who aren't family members or spouses might feel like they have to hide their grief in some ways -- that it doesn't count or isn't as bad for them as for people closer to the inner circle," she said. "But it's still extremely painful."


The opioid overdose crisis is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year, with that number increasing amid a broken addiction treatment system, said Dr. Michael Barnett, an associate professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

"This addiction crisis is not someone else's problem. If not you, it's someone you know," Barnett said. "It's a problem for all of us."

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