To say Americans are dying of despair sounds melodramatic, so we’ll put it another way: The country is in the throes of an opioid epidemic that claims 130 lives a day. The U.S. suicide rate in 2017 was 33% higher than 20 years ago. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Utahns aged 10 to 24. And alcohol-related deaths are rising, making it the third-leading preventable cause of death nationwide.
Actually, “dying of despair” doesn’t seem an exaggeration after all.
Giving visibility to this remarkable trend is the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, which released on Friday aggregated data from despair-related deaths across the past century. In a statement that ought to resonate around the country, the authors note, “Mortality from deaths of despair far surpasses anything seen in America since the dawn of the 20th century.”
Friday’s data was part of the Joint Economic Committee’s years-long study on the decline in social capital across the nation. It’s a worthy pursuit that highlights the necessity for policymakers to consider what may be an overlooked ingredient in the success of America.
Curiously, though, the authors could find no correlation between rising deaths of despair and depleting amounts of social capital. One would think fewer neighborly interactions and declining religiosity would contribute to a sense of loneliness looking for a dangerous outlet.
The more probable reason for the spike in despair-related deaths is more tangible than friendships or smiles: A rash of synthetic drugs, namely fentanyl, has flooded the U.S. in the past two decades. Their potency makes easy prey of those in desperate situations.
“Rising unhappiness may have increased the demand for ways to numb or end despair,” the authors write, but “the proliferation of a uniquely addictive and deadly class of drugs has meant that the supply of despair relief has become more prevalent and more lethal.”
In other words, Americans aren’t dying from loneliness alone; they’re just embracing harder ways to deal with it.
Solutions will be as varied as the problem is complex, but leaders must include and prioritize social capital — its nonrelationship to deaths of despair doesn’t mean social capital can’t pull someone from the brink of despair.
American associations — families, churches, clubs, block parties and the like — are in the people business and should be the first line of defense when someone feels hope slipping from them.
To that end, the country would benefit from stronger partnerships between faith, the community and political organizations. The Faith Communities Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, as well as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which owns this publication), have both collaborated with civic leaders to strengthen suicide prevention efforts in communities, and similar ventures are needed across the nation, especially in areas hit hardest by the opioid crisis.
There’s a role for policy, too, but it’s difficult to legislate organic association among hundreds of millions of people. Ultimately, individual Americans have a duty to extend a hand of fellowship and demonstrate their care during quiet moments each day, ensuring hope can make a triumphant return.