Drug Overdose Deaths Reach Pandemic Levels

by Denis Storey
February 23, 2024 at 11:30 AM UTC

More than 40 percent of Americans know someone who has died of a drug overdose. And a third of them say those deaths upended their lives.

Clinical relevance: More than 40% of Americans know someone who died from a drug overdose.

  • RAND Corp. research reveals significant life disruptions due to overdose deaths, particularly affecting women, married individuals, and urban residents.
  • More than 109,000 drug overdose deaths took place in 2022, surpassing 1 million over two decades.
  • RAND’s study highlights the need for research and support for those affected by overdose loss, with 13% experiencing disruptions and over 4% still struggling.

More than 40 percent of Americans know someone who has died of a drug overdose. That’s now roughly the same percentage of people who know someone who’s died of Covid.

And a third of those people say those deaths upended their lives. The RAND Corp. reported these grim numbers in its latest research. And The American Journal of Public Health published the survey results in its latest issue.

A Covid-Type Epidemic

Digging deeper, the RAND analysts found that “lifetime exposure to an overdose death is more common among women than men, married participants than unmarried participants, U.S.-born participants than immigrants, and those who live in urban settings as compared to those in rural settings.”

Overdose exposure rates peaked the highest in the Northeast and the East South Central regions.

“The experiences and needs of millions of survivors of an overdose loss largely have been overlooked in the clinical and public health response to the nation’s overdose crisis,” Alison Athey, the study’s lead author and a RAND behavioral scientist, explained in a press release. “Our findings emphasize the need for research into the prevalence and impact of overdose loss, particularly among groups and communities that experience disproportionate rates of loss.”

RAND reports that more than 109,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2022. That lifts the two-decade total from 2000 over the 1 million mark. It’s also slightly higher than the latest National Institutes of Health data, which reported 106,000 deaths in 2021. Synthetic opioids – excluding methadone – lead the way as the primary classification responsible of overdose deaths “with a nearly 7.5-fold increase from 2015 to 2021.”

Knock-on Effects of Overdose Deaths

While the shockwaves of the overdose epidemic have left drug users, their families, and their employers in its wake, scientists – so far – have committed few resources to what happens to those left behind.

The RAND researchers approached this project by drawing a parallel to earlier studies that examined the aftermath of suicide victims and how it influenced surviving friends and family members.

“There appears to be a continuum of survivorship following suicide deaths, leaving overlapping groups of those exposed, those who are psychologically distressed, and those who are significantly impacted by suicide,” the study’s authors wrote. “Each suicide death is estimated to affect the lives of as many as 135 U.S. adults.”

“It’s likely that a similar continuum of survivorship exists among overdose loss survivors,” Athey added.


The researchers at RAND polled more than 2,000 adults, asking each of them if they knew someone who’d died of a drug overdose and explain how it affected their life.

More than 42 percent of them reported knowing at least one person who died from an overdose. Extrapolating that data would mean that 125 million American adults suffered a similar loss.

Other study results include:

  • 13 percent of respondents admitted that an overdose loss “disrupted” their lives.
  • More than 4 percent of those surveyed conceded that they’re still reeling from that loss.

Further Reading

Emerging Perspectives in Addiction Psychiatry

Opioid Use Disorder and Its Treatment in the Elderly

Risk for Overdose in Youth With SUD

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