“Deaths of despair on the rise across state, country” read the headline of a recent story in this paper. Massachusetts is only 34th in the nation in deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs, as such deaths are being defined. But the Cape’s suicide rate is twice that of the state, the story noted.
Given that striking phrase, “deaths of despair,” I kept waiting for the part of the story where the the writer quoted someone speculating about the cause of the despair. Sure, the proximate cause is often substance abuse, but “despair” hints at a deeper cause.
We are as a society deeply concerned about the opioid epidemic, but we are content with shallow explanations (the cause of the opioid addiction is the over-prescription of painkillers.)
It seems part of the story of this story that we are not more curious about a deeper cause.
We tend to see suicide and addiction as being in the “personal” realm, as individual deviations from the norm, symptoms perhaps of special trouble in the person’s family background or of some weakness of character. But the word “despair” hints at a s ociological dimension, a deeper national or worldwide malaise. Is there something about life itself these days which is causing more people to lose interest in living it?
There are plenty of candidates for possible explanations for greater despair .
One of the most obvious would be declining economic prospects, the widespread knowledge that average incomes adjusted for inflation haven’t risen for over 40 years. Is inequality bad for our psyches? There’s the widely advertised burden on young people of college debt. The numbers of millennials living at home with their parents (25% of those 25-29; 13 % of those 30-34, according to a 2016 Pew report.)
How about The decline of USA’s reputation around the world (including a number of feckless wars in recent decades) making it harder to see our country as a force for good. Is it possible that our country’s behavior casts a shadow on our personal lives?
The decline in recent years of the birthrate could be both cause and symptom. As could the decline in the popularity of marriage as a traditional institution.
What effect on the national psyche is the epidemic of porn addiction having? Internet porn gets, according to a recent Huffington Post, more hits monthly than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined). Porn addiction is said to take its toll on actual sex with actual partners. Might this new source of pleasure have an unintended consequence of producing despair?
Parents’ worry about their children’s screenlife is a common theme these days, but social media addiction has most of us getting more social juice from our devices than from traditional relating. Is the dominance of social media which is obviously so compelling to billions somehow a cause of despair?
One possibility would be whatever it is that’s causing the now decades-long obesity epidemic (other than the shallow explanation of profit-motivated corporations deliberately trying to make their food irresistible.)
Or whatever it is that has 13% of the population over 12 on anti-depressants (according to a 2017 Time magazine report.)
It’s hard to tell to what extent some of these are symptoms and to what extent causes, but it seems to me that any or all, alone or in combination, might explain a statistical increase in despair. Surely there are hundreds of PhD dissertations coming up with explanations even as I write.
A start to understanding “deaths of despair” would be to take the “despair” part of the phrase more seriously. There’s the old joke about the guy looking for his lost car keys under the streetlamp because the light is better than across the street where he knows he dropped them. As ineffective as the “war on drugs” and such supply-side solutions have proved, addressing the deeper causes seems much more difficult. But that may be where we’ll find the keys.