An Overlooked Emergency

Overdose deaths have far-reaching consequences that are not fully understood. In the United States, more than 109,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2022, placing the national total since 2000 at more than 1.1 million overdose deaths. The overdose crisis has had wide-ranging negative impacts on people who use drugs, their employers, and public health systems, but little research has explored the experiences of those left behind by fatal drug overdoses.

The prevalence of overdose loss is unclear. Previous efforts have attempted to measure the prevalence of overdose loss in the United States, but there is no standard approach for collecting this information. For example, one 2018 survey asked respondents whether they ever had a loved one or a close friend die from a prescription painkiller or heroin overdose (13% reported exposure to this type of loss). More recently, a 2023 survey asked respondents whether someone in their family died from a drug overdose (9% reported exposure to this type of loss). Neither survey inquired about experiences of overdose loss beyond family and close friends.

A parallel line of research with those left behind by suicide suggests that overdose loss may be more prevalent than previously understood. Each suicide death affects the lives of as many as 135 US adults. There appears to be a continuum of survivorship following suicide deaths such that loss creates overlapping groups of those exposed (i.e., those who knew someone who died by suicide), those affected (i.e., those who are psychologically distressed), and those bereaved (i.e., those who are significantly impacted) by suicide. It is likely that a similar continuum of survivorship exists among overdose loss survivors, but the existing research has focused primarily on those who lose family members to overdose. Given evidence of poor outcomes across the continuum of suicide loss survivors, research is needed to estimate the prevalence of overdose loss exposure, to characterize the types of survivors, and to evaluate the impact of overdose loss.

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