Is the 'cure worse than the disease?' Health stats from the Great Depression show it's not.
Photo by Sonder Quest on Unsplash

We've been "locked down" for nearly two months, and people are are understandably tired of it. Millions of Americans are out of work, which means many have also lost their employer-provided health insurance. Our economy has slowed to a crawl, businesses are shuttered, and everyone is worried about the sustainability of it all.

"We can't let the cure be worse than the disease," people say. The president himself has repeated this line, the implication being that the impact of the lockdowns will be worse than the impact of the virus. Just today in his press briefing the president mentioned suicides and drug overdoses as tragic consequences of the lockdowns, stating that more Americans could die of those causes than the virus if we fall into an extended economic depression.



Is that true, though? While no one can predict the future, death statistics and economic history in the U.S. do not support that idea at all. Not even close.

Let's start with suicides. During the two worst years of the Great Depression, 20,000 Americans per year took their own lives. That's tragic—but it's nowhere near the number of Americans that have died of COVID-19 just in the past month.

Screenshot via Worldometers

Of course, the U.S. population has nearly tripled since the Great Depression, so we can't compare that number directly. But even if we triple those Great Depression suicides to 60,000 a year to account for population change, that's still not as many Americans as have died of COVID-19 in just the past 5 weeks.

Using a different calculation, there was a 25% increase in suicides during the Great Depression. With ~48,000 suicides in the U.S. in 2018, a 25% increase would also put the annual number at 60,000. No suicide number is a good number, of course. But by no math in the universe is an extra 12,000 deaths per year anywhere near the 80,000 Americans who have died of COVID-19 in the past two months.

Our COVID-19 deaths have averaged around 2000 per day for weeks while under lockdown. At no time in our history, through bad economic depressions and horrific world wars, has 2000 Americans died of suicide per day. Even if our suicide numbers tripled—a 12 times greater increase than during the worst years of the Great Depression—that would still be less than 400 people dying of suicide per day. A terrible number, but not nearly as terrible as 2000 per day.

What about drug overdoses? Well, that's a little trickier to gauge. I've not seen any statistics about drug overdoses during the Great Depression, and we already had an opioid crisis flourishing before the pandemic hit. I imagine it's probably harder for people to get the drugs to feed an addiction right now, so I'm not convinced that there would be an enormous increase in drug overdoses. But for the sake of argument, let's say drug overdoses doubled. Highly unlikely, but let's go with it.

In 2018, the last year for which we have statistics, 184 people per day died of drug overdose. If we double that, we're talking around 370 people per day—still less than one-fourth the number of Americans dying of COVID-19 per day in the past month.

Even added together, those extreme suicide and drug overdose scenarios don't add up to our current COVID-19 situation. And once again—those numbers are with lockdowns in place.

What about starvation, though? Surely millions would die of starvation or malnutrition in a tanked economy, right? Well, no—for a couple of reasons.

1) The reality is if anyone starves to death in the U.S., a country that has the ability to produce more than enough food to feed our population, that's a mismanagement of resources, not an inevitable outcome of an economic crash.

2) Americans didn't die of starvation in large numbers during the Great Depression.

In fact—are you ready for a rather mind-blowing statistic—the overall health of Americans didn't decline during the Great Depression at all. It improved.

People lived years longer during the Depression. Life expectancy rose. Mortality rates dropped in every category (except suicide) across practically every demographic.

In fact, this pattern shows up consistently during economic booms and recessions. More people die—and die at younger ages—during economic booms. Vice versa during recessions. Counterintuitive? Yes. But that's what the data shows. (Here's the 2009 study that shows these trends during the Great Depression.)

We could debate the reasons for this, but it doesn't really matter. The point is, if the "cure" is a lockdown that results in an economic depression and the "disease" is the virus spreading unchecked, we have no evidence that the cure is or could be worse than the disease, at least not in terms of death counts.

Now clearly, there are huge problems with a tanked economy. Mental health issues increase. Life is hard. People struggle and suffer and we certainly should not minimize that. BUT...

Mass death and mass illness also cause suffering and mental health issues, while also hurting the economy.

I've seen people say we open back up, shoot for herd immunity, and just accept the fact that people will die. But that notion completely ignores the economic impact of having a big chunk of the population too sick to work. As we hear more and more people describe their COVID-19 journeys, it's becoming clear that even infected people who don't have to be hospitalized can still be very ill for weeks.

Let's do some quick herd immunity math. Reaching herd immunity means 70% of the population would have to get the virus. (Some say 60%, some say 80 or 90%—let's go with the middle.) That's 229 million people in the U.S. We don't have a good enough hold on this virus to know how many people have already have it or how many would be asymptomatic, but a current guess for asymptomatic cases is 25% to 50%. Let's go with the higher.

That would mean 114.5 million Americans being symptomatically ill. It's impossible to know how severe each person's case would be, but if even half of those with symptoms got flu-level ill, that would be 56 million people too sick to work for weeks. Some would have lingering health issues afterward to boot. What would that kind of mass illness to do to the economy?

And we haven't even gotten to the people dying yet. We don't have an accurate mortality rate, but let's go with a conservative 0.5% death rate (meaning 99.5% of people who get it, survive it). We're still talking 1,135,000 deaths if we shoot for 70% herd immunity at that death rate. That basically means we'd all know people who died of this disease.

I'm pretty sure mass grieving over a huge death toll in a short period of time isn't great for the economy, either. (Perhaps instead of deciding how much death and illness we're willing to tolerate, we could take this opportunity to fundamentally rethink how our economy works? Just a thought.)

Granted, all of these numbers are based on data that keeps changing as we learn more about the virus and its impact. We don't know enough yet to say anything for sure. We don't even know if people are truly immune yet. We do know the virus is real, and that it's more contagious and more deadly than the flu. Everything else is a best guess.

Essentially, there are no good options before us at the moment that don't involve great losses of one kind or another. But by no historical or statistical measure do we have evidence that the cure worse than the disease—at least with the data we have right now.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

True

The energy in a hospital can sometimes feel overwhelming, whether you’re experiencing it as a patient, visitor or employee. However, there are a few one-of-a-kind individuals like Elaine Ahn, an operating room registered nurse in Diamond Bar, California, who thrive under this type of constant pressure.

Keep Reading Show less
via Pexels

If you know how to fix this tape, you grew up in the 1990s.

There are a lot of reasons to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the final days of the 20th century. Rampant inflation, a global pandemic and political unrest have created a sense of uneasiness about the future that has everyone feeling a bit down.

There’s also a feeling that the current state of pop culture is lacking as well. Nobody listens to new music anymore and unless you’re into superheroes, it seems like creativity is seriously missing from the silver screen.

But, you gotta admit, that TV is still pretty damn good.

A lot of folks feel Americans have become a lot harsher to one another due to political divides, which seem to be widening by the day due to the power of the internet and partisan media.

Keep Reading Show less
Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

Peter Bence's performance of "Africa" is both entertaining and impressive.

Toto's "Africa" is one of the most beloved pop songs of all time. In fact, it's been touted by at least one neural scientist and by countless music fans as the No. 1 song ever written.

For a song released in the early 1980s, it has stood the test of time consistently, never feeling dated or constrained by its decade. "Africa" is practically in a genre of its own, which is probably why it's been covered so many times in so many styles by so many artists.

One rendition that's getting viral attention—not for the first time—may be unlike any you've ever seen.

Peter Bence is a Hungarian pianist and composer who performs "Africa" as a solo piece on the piano—only it's not a piano solo piece in the traditional sense, as he uses the piano in totally different ways than what we're used to seeing.

Keep Reading Show less

Prior to baby formula, breastfeeding was the norm, but that doesn't mean it always worked.

As if the past handful of years weren't challenging enough, the U.S. is currently dealing with a baby formula crisis.

Due to a perfect storm of supply chain issues, product recalls, labor shortages and inflation, manufacturers are struggling to keep up with formula demand and retailers are rationing supplies. As a result, families that rely on formula are scrambling to ensure that their babies get the food they need.

Naturally, people are weighing in on the crisis, with some throwing out simplistic advice like, "Why don't you just do what people did before baby formula was invented and just breastfeed?"

That might seem logical, unless you understand how breastfeeding works and know a bit about infant mortality throughout human history.

Keep Reading Show less