Mental health, COVID-19 and fentanyl crisis to blame for Colorado life expectancy decrease

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) – The average life expectancy in Colorado has dropped nearly three years since 2019 and experts are citing mental health, COVID-19 and the fentanyl crisis as major factors. Between fentanyl, COVID-19, mental health and other substance abuse, a combination of factors has caused the average Colorado life expectancy to drop from 81-years-old to 78 since 2019.

The data on life expectancy comes from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 11 News spoke to El Paso County Coroner Leon Kelly about the latest report.

“When you take multiple factors, multiple issues going on the same time at relatively young ages in which those folks can die, it’s not a mystery as to why the life expectancy has gone down for the first time in American history since really World War II ,” says Kelly.

Fentanyl has become an increasing issue in Colorado and is particularly impactful on life expectancy. Fentanyl deaths in El Paso County are expected to reach close to 100 again this year, on track with 2021.

“After many years of increasing opioid deaths we kind of plateaued and those numbers were receding. And then along comes fentanyl and we have seen a doubling of fentanyl deaths in this community over the last five years,” says Kelly. “The issue with fentanyl in how it relates to life expectancy is that the age of those individuals that are dying is dramatically younger than what we see in other deaths. The average age of a fentanyl death in El Paso County is 35-years-old.”

Kelly also says this is the just beginning of a long battle against fentanyl.

“We are not by any means through this, we are just at the beginning of addressing the issue,” Kelly explains.

Fentanyl abuse typically also correlates to mental health issues in individuals, which is another huge factor in the decreased life expectancy.

“You can’t talk about dealing with substance abuse without addressing the mental health side of it,” says Kelly. “About a quarter of our drug deaths have previous diagnosis of a known mental health disorder. And I mean that’s folks that have been to the doctor, have gotten diagnosed and at least have some level of care. That obviously is a gross under-count.”

According to Kelly, suicide numbers have been an increasing issue for more than a decade in Colorado.

“We’ve seen more than a decade and a half of increasing suicide numbers,” Kelly states. “We’ve seen relatively steady suicide numbers the last couple years, which is somewhat heartening, but at the same time we’re still at record levels of suicides even when they plateau.”

In terms of COVID-19, coming out of the pandemic should help life expectancy rebound a bit.

“The deaths that we see are a fraction of where we were a couple years ago, so that piece of it and a large part is on the course to take care of itself,” Kelly states. “It’s now time to kind of move on to some of these other issues that haven’t gotten the attention, that are impacting our families every single day.”

In terms of mental health, Kelly urges the importance of reaching out when in need of help.

“It’s a sign of strength to reach out for help from friends and neighbors and professionals who are able to do that for us. Life can be tough, we all struggles, we all have stresses, it’s all about learning how to deal with that and navigate that and cope with that in ways that are positive and healthy.”

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis or know somebody who is, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. It can be accessed by simply dialing and calling 988 on your phone.

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