Deaths of despair: A loss of hope

Many of us remember the great recession of 2008. Others of us lived through the Economic Malaise of the late 1970s into the 1980s. (Economic Malaise was a gentler term than Great Depression.) How terrible it was for the families who depended on the steel mills for their livelihoods. And then everyone learned about ‘ripple effect.’ Contractors who worked for the steel industry were devastated as the dominoes continued to fall. Local stores were stricken when there were fewer customer dollars. You were fortunate if you could afford to have what you needed. Homes – and everything else families had worked hard to possess – were lost. And the quality of life declined. There was no stigma attached to the free lunch program at school.

Men who had provided well for their families all of their lives found themselves unemployed. Depression settled over many men like a heavy, black blanket. They didn’t want to take jobs that paid less than what they had been making. Nor did they want to spend what money they had on gasoline to burn while driving around looking for jobs that didn’t exist. Some held it all in. Some exploded or turned to suicidal thoughts. Couples divorced. Other couples didn’t, just kept struggling along because times were hard. Everyone learned that we don’t have to handle just our own consequences. Sometimes we get to handle the consequences of the actions of our leaders.

President Reagan appealed to those who faced such deep struggles, “We must sacrifice the part for the whole,” is what some of us remember. That was no consolation for families who had to feed, clothe and provide a secure roof for their children. There was despair, even among the patriotic.

Women were more job marketable in the 1980s. One of the things people said was, “Women will work for less. They will sacrifice to make sure their children eat.”

Men said to their wives, “It’s my job to provide for the family.” Wives said, “One of us has to go to work. If you won’t, I don’t have any choice.”

More despair.

“Deaths of despair are deaths by suicide, drug poisoning and drug abuse,” according to the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities (OACBHA). These have set life expectancy into a downward spiral.

“Despair in our society is a barrier to reviving our labor markets and productivity, jeopardizes our well-being, health and longevity, and affects our politics,” writes Carol Graham in her report from www.Brookings.edu, America’s Crisis of Despair. “Despair was increasing well before COVID-19; the virus was an exponential shock.”


Significant loss of hope. Economic and social breakdown. A podcast at www.census.gov features Mark Olfson of Columbia University who explains the rise in despair in the U.S. by breaking it down: 1.) Economic stagnation: (globalization, shifting technologies, decline in unions.) 2.) Risk factors for despair: declining income and job prospects, falling marriage rates, social isolation.) 3.) Diseases of despair: suicidal ideation, substance use disorders.) 4.) Deaths of despair: suicide, drug overdose, alcohol-related diseases.

Olfson lists the markers of socioeconomic adversity:

• Low educational attainment. (Less than a bachelor’s degree.)

• Unemployment.

• Low income.

• Separated, divorced, single marital status.

In their book, Deaths of Despair: A Tale of Two Countries, Angus Deaton (received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics) and Sarah Connor (received the Orwell Prize) reiterates what the others have said about socioeconomic adversity. Deaton, a professor at Princeton University, referred to the 2008 Great Recession, and noted that two-thirds of Americans do not have a college degree. The socioeconomic situation has created a state of instability for those at risk of a death of despair.

He also cited faltering religion, and the mental and physical pain of persons in middle age, saying they have more pain than the elderly. People can’t find the meaning of life anymore.

The U.S. and the U.K are more affected by diseases of despair than the rest of the world, the authors said. (I wonder if this is related to the Industrial Revolution?)

What will you do with this knowledge?

Family Recovery Center offers mental health services as well as addiction services. The goal is for the health and well-being of all. For information about the education, prevention and treatment programs for substance abuse and related behavioral issues, contact the agency at 964 N. Market St., Lisbon; 330-424-1468; or info@familyrecovery.org. Visit familyrecovery.org. FRC is funded in part by United Way of Northern Columbiana County.


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