Our recent release of research on white mortality in Missouri should be a wake-up call for the state. The findings of increased mortality over the past two decades in 79 of 114 Missouri counties should give us pause about the basic health of our region and the direction we are heading. Coupled with results from previous Foundation-supported work focusing on African Americans in St. Louis, it is clear that Missourians from a variety of ethnicities and communities are suffering and dying younger than they should. This enormous human toll is matched by economic loss – the opioid epidemic alone cost Missouri $12.6 billion in 2016, equivalent to 4.2 percent of our state’s GDP.
We need to understand that these statistics reflect long-term patterns of behavior shaped by policies and practices in many sectors of society. These upstream factors have created the economic and social circumstances that foster a loss of hope and a sense of despair, which contribute to increased deaths. Fundamental solutions must address these policies and practices – at the state and federal levels and in the private sector – to ensure the large-scale health strides we hope to see. We need approaches that recognize the interconnected nature of these basic building blocks that are essential for healthy people and healthy communities. We need to invest in the well-being of our fellow citizens from a long-term, holistic perspective.
Many changes will take years, but more immediate improvements are also possible if we act now! This crisis is too big and too severe to wait. At the top of the list is strengthening our health and social safety net. Missourians overwhelmingly support our safety net, and want to make it stronger and more effective. This is not surprising, as most of us benefit from a safety net program or know a family member or friend who has. The safety net helps the most vulnerable in our state, often at their time of greatest need, including pregnant women, seniors, children, and people with disabilities. A functioning safety net helps people from all walks of life live up to their potential, bringing untold value back to our region.
It is time for Missourians to come together to affirm our mutual responsibility to care for one another. The mortality statistics are alarming not only for the lost lives and family tragedies they represent, but because they also reflect a basic lack of fairness and equity in our society. This needs to change. We must prevent more unnecessary deaths – whether the underlying causes are institutional racism, economic policies, or lack of basic affordable health care. Protecting Missouri’s current safety net and strengthening it in the future is a step in the right direction.
This is part of an ongoing series in which we will be commenting on the state of health in Missouri and its communities.