The Sad Reality of “Deaths of Despair”

In their recent paper, “Mortality and morbidity in the 21st century,” Princeton Professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton show that while midlife mortality rates continue to fall among all education classes in most of the rich world, middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less have experienced increasing midlife mortality since the late 1990s. This is due to both rises in the number of “deaths of despair”—death by drugs, alcohol and suicide—and to a slowdown in progress against mortality from heart disease and cancer, the two largest killers in middle age.

The authors share what I consider a startling statistic: in 1999, mortality rates of whites with no more than a high school degree were around 30 percent lower than mortality rates of blacks; in 2015, the mortality rates of these whites are 30 percent higher than blacks by 2015.

While hopefully part of that dramatic reversal is due to improved mortality rates for blacks, a significant part of it is likely due to the increased number of deaths of despair faced by the whites.

The authors also note that deaths of despair are rising in parallel for both men and women without a high school degree. They suggest that the increases in deaths of despair are accompanied by a measurable deterioration in economic and social well-being, and document an accumulation of pain, distress, and social dysfunction in the lives of working class whites that took hold as the blue-collar economic heyday of the early 1970s ended, and continued through the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery.

I can’t imagine the stress that is placed on someone who is facing difficult financial times, often as a result of job insecurity.

For the vast majority of people, part of who they are is wrapped up in what they do for a living. If some of those people are unable to find a job, they face an identity crisis, and often times the response in such situations is drugs, alcohol, and suicide – the deaths of despair.

I’m not sure what the solution is to when someone loses a job, particularly if the person is older, and has been replaced by technology.

But I have to admit that I like what President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland) proposes as a solution, one that seems feasible and offers hope to those who desperately need it:

Maybe we can get Kiefer to run for President in 2020, and have him bring along the entire production team from Designated Survivor as his advisors.

I’m not sure what Sutherland’s actual views on political issues are, but he seems to be a fan of a common sense approach to running our country, and that seems to be the best approach possible.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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