When categorizing public health problems, the word "epidemic" is often applied to emphasize those of great impact. It is no longer merely associated with the rapid and widespread advance of infectious diseases, but has become a common part of "wake-up language" to give an issue a sense of priority. When the president declares a health issue a "national emergency," as he did with the opioid epidemic, it takes it to another level. It sends a message of the issue's priority and opens access to resources and tools in response to the emergency.
When we create such a major platform to discuss eradicating the deadliest drug overdose crisis in U.S. history, it is hoped the discussion will not eclipse but instead heighten the opportunity to highlight other public health issues that are taking a similar toll.
Alcohol abuse is just one example of such a health issue. It contributes to 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Excessive drinking is said to account for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults. It is also a global problem. A new study based on data from the World Health Organization, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, as well as other sources, reveals that alcohol and tobacco cause significantly more death, disability and addiction worldwide than illegal drugs.
According to the report, an estimated 63 million people worldwide were dependent on alcohol in 2015. That equates to approximately 843 cases of alcohol dependence per 100,000 people.
From colonial times to Prohibition to the present, our country has had a long and conflicted relationship with alcohol. According to a 2015 National Archives exhibit on the history of drinking in America, since the late 19th century, we have treated alcoholism as a disease. Yet today it remains an often poorly understood public health problem. With medications and recovery support services, it is a treatable disease.
In a recent commentary posted on theconversation.com, Dr. Jamie Smolen, addiction psychiatry specialist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Florida, defines alcohol abuse as a brain disorder that causes chronic illness.
"It is no different from diabetes, asthma or hypertension," he writes. "When comprehensive, continuing care is provided, the recovery results improve, and the binge drinker has the hope of remaining sober as long as lifelong treatment and maintenance of sobriety become a dedicated lifestyle choice."
On another front, despite all the work done to combat smoking, it remains a leading cause of preventable death. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year, and current trends project that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030.
Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States. This equates to about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day.
This sounds like an epidemic to me, and one that deserves continued discussion given the continuing serious nature of its consequences. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, if smoking progresses at the current rate among U.S. youth, 5.6 million of today's Americans younger than 18 years of age will die prematurely from a smoking-related illness. This represents about one in every 13 Americans aged 17 years or younger who are alive today.
You would not normally view something that accounts for just 1 percent of all hospital visits to be elevated to the level of an epidemic or an emergency. Yet there is a situation now making news to which we need to all pay close attention.
The number of kids who struggle with thoughts of suicide or who attempt to kill themselves is rising in this country. Suicide ideation and suicide attempts by young people in this country appear to be steadily increasing. New research, published in the journal Pediatrics, finds children ages 5 to 17 visited children's hospitals for suicidal thoughts or attempts about twice as often in 2015 as in 2008. One of the study's most striking findings was a seasonal trend in hospital visits. The report demonstrates that, throughout the years, visits tended to peak in mid-fall and mid-spring and fell to the lowest point in the summer.
"It really speaks to the stress and the strain at school," Dr. Robert Dicker, associate director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York, tells NPR News.
Though it is the third-leading cause of death in adolescents, the report points out that suicide is still relatively rare. Though the number of cases has made it difficult to study specific causes, clinicians point to the importance of better screening of kids for signs of clinical depression and anxiety. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently endorses a universal depression screening for adolescents ages 12 and up.
"We know there are a lot of patients still out there who have clinical depression who are not accessing care," Gregory Plemmons, a pediatrician and researcher at Vanderbilt University and lead author of the report tells NBC News. It is believed that as many as 90 percent of young people that eventually go on to commit suicide have some diagnosable mental health disorder.
The important message is that while childhood depression might feel overwhelming, it is very treatable. The sooner the treatment begins, the sooner the child will begin to recover and develop positive coping strategies.
As pointed out last week, major depression is on the rise among Americans. Meanwhile, most Americans experienced increased anxiety levels during the past year. It should also be pointed out that children whose parents have depression are at greater risk for depression.
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