The diseases of despair are three classes of behavior-related medical conditions that increase in groups of people who experience despair due to a sense that their long-term social and economic prospects are bleak. The three disease types are drug overdose (including alcohol overdose), suicide, and alcoholic liver disease.
Diseases of despair, and the resulting deaths of despair, are high in the Appalachia region of the United States, especially, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Delaware. The prevalence increased markedly during the first decades of the 21st century, especially among middle-aged and older working class White Americans starting in 2010, followed by an increase in mortality for Hispanic Americans in 2011 and African Americans in 2014. It gained media attention because of its connection to the opioid epidemic. For 2018, some 158,000 U.S. citizens died from these causes, compared to 65,000 in 1995. The economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute this rising mortality to the flaws in contemporary capitalism.
Deaths of despair have increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic and associated recession, with a 10% to 60% increase above pre-pandemic levels. Life expectancy in the United States declined further to 76.4 years in 2021, with the main drivers being the COVID-19 pandemic along with deaths from drug overdoses, suicides and liver disease.
Despair often breeds disease.
The word despair derives from the Latin word desperare, which means 'to have no hope, to despair'. The concept of despair in any form can not only affect an individual person, but can also arise in and spread through social communities.
There are four basic types of despair. Cognitive despair denotes thoughts connected to defeat, guilt, hopelessness and pessimism. It may make a person perceive other people's actions as hostile and discount the value of long-term outcomes. Emotional despair refers to feelings of sadness, irritability, loneliness and apathy and may partly impede the process of creating and nourishing interpersonal relationships. The term behavioural despair describes risky, reckless and self-destructive acts reflecting little to no consideration of the future (such as self-harm, reckless driving, drug use, risky sexual behaviours and others). Lastly, biological despair relates to dysfunction or dysregulation of the body's stress reactive system and/or to hormonal instability. Thus, despair can be contained in several categories, ranging from the emotional despair of loneliness, anxiety, a loss of faith in self, mankind or a higher power, loss of finances or job opportunities, and a general feeling of lack.
Being under the influence of despair for an extended amount of time may lead to the development of one or more of the diseases of despair, such as suicidal thoughts or drug and alcohol abuse. If an individual has a disease of despair, there is an increased risk of death of despair, usually classified as a suicide, drug or alcohol overdose, or liver failure.
Unstable mental health, depression, suicidal thoughts and addiction to drugs and alcohol affect people of every age, every ethnicity, and every demographic group in every country in the world. However, data show that in recent years these problems are on the rise, especially among the US White non-Hispanic men and women in midlife. Since the beginning of the millennium, this particular group of people is the single one in the world which experienced continual increase in mortality and morbidity while US Black non-Hispanics and US Hispanics, as well as all subgroups of populations in other rich countries (such as countries from the EU, Japan, Australia and others), show the exact opposite trend. Moreover, men and women having no more than high school education and those living in rural areas are more affected by this phenomenon than their peers who are college-educated and live in urban areas.
Mortality and morbidity rates in the United States have been decreasing for decades. Between 1970 and 2013, mortality rates fell by 44% and morbidity was on a decline even among the elderly. After 1998, mortality rates in other rich countries have been declining by 2% a year; midlife mortality fell by more than 200 per 100,000 for Black non-Hispanics and by more than 60 per 100,000 for Hispanics during the 1998–2013 period. The infamous AIDS epidemic was brought under control – in 2018, only 37,968 people received an HIV diagnosis in the USA and its 6 dependent areas, which is an overall 7% decrease compared with the year 2014. Cardiovascular disease and cancer, the two biggest killers in middle age, are also on a decline, even though the still growing problem with obesity is not getting under control yet. Despite all of these satisfactory numbers, White non-Hispanic population exhibits an increase in premature deaths, especially in those caused by suicide, drug overdose and alcoholic liver disease. According to the research, alcohol and drug misuse were up dramatically, and suicidal thoughts and behaviours were up to 170% between 2009 and 2018.
There are two main factors driving this trend. Firstly, the data show the US White non-Hispanic population significantly differs from populations in other countries. For example, in 2015, drug, alcohol and suicide mortality was more than two times higher among US White non-Hispanics in comparison to people from the United Kingdom, Sweden or Australia. In comparison to US Black non-Hispanics, the mortality and morbidity rates are still lower; nevertheless the gap between these groups is narrowing quickly and, for example, for people aged 30–34 the difference between these two ethnicities has almost completely diminished. Also, white non-Hispanics aged 50–54 with no more than a high school diploma reached almost 1,000 premature deaths per 100,000 in the year 2015, whereas the average for all White non-Hispanics regardless of their education was only around 500 deaths per 100,000. Therefore, the factor of education probably negatively correlates with the probability of developing a disease of despair (that means higher education correlates with lower probability of developing a disease of despair).
Secondly, the excess premature deaths are, as stated above, caused primarily by suicide, poisonings or drug overdoses and other causes connected especially to alcoholism such as chronic liver diseases. Suicidal thinking and behaviours rose by 287% between 2009 and 2018 in people under 18 years of age. The proportion of these causes of death (in comparison to deaths caused by assaults, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, HIV and motor vehicle crashes) in population white non-Hispanic people aged 25–44 is increased by 210%. It is also worth noting that the highest rates are to be discovered among people living in rural areas. For example, during the years 1999–2015, the rate of deaths of despair increased twice as much as the rate of other causes of deaths in the population of White non-Hispanics aged 30–44 living in rural areas. In total, death rates in rural subpopulations for all ethnicities increased among those aged 25–64 years by 6%. As a result of these findings, it is possible to assume that living in rural areas is also connected to the diseases and deaths of despair. The researches also reported that men have nearly 50% higher odds of being diagnosed with a disease of despair than women. According to another source, men aged 35 to 77 were the main focal groups affiliated with the disease of despair. Similarly, women aged 18 to 34, and 55 to 74 were most associated with the condition.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the most severe global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak with lockdowns, social and economic disturbances and a sharp rise in unemployment.
Preliminary studies indicate an aggravation of depression, anxiety, drug overdoses, and suicidal ideation following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though certain health aspects like stress can be concurrent with the crisis, other biopsychosocial risk factors such as job loss, housing precarity, and food insecurity can manifest over time. This range of social determinants, commonly experienced during an economic downturn, can induce and aggravate a sense of despair. Loneliness, which is associated with despair, was also aggravated by social isolation practices put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which may contribute to a rise in diseases of despair. For example, according to a new study published by Mayo Clinic researchers, the COVID-19 pandemic was linked to a 17% increase in the death rate in Minnesota.
A preliminary review of 70 published studies conducted in 17 countries concerning the potential impacts of COVID-19 on deaths of despair indicates that women, ethnic minorities and younger age groups, may have suffered disproportionately more than other groups.
Preliminary indications in Canada and the United States demonstrate that the trajectory of drug overdose-related deaths was exacerbated. In Canada, drug overdose-related deaths stabilized prior to the onset of COVID-19, but increased after the onset of COVID-19. In the United States, drug overdose-related deaths increased prior to and accelerated after the onset of COVID-19.
Our account echoes the account of suicide by Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology, of how suicide happens when society fails to provide some of its members with the framework within which they can live dignified and meaningful lives.
— Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (2020)
The factors that seem to exacerbate diseases of despair are not fully known, but they are generally recognized as including a worsening of economic inequality and feeling of hopelessness about personal financial success. This can take many forms and appear in different situations. For example, people feel inadequate and disadvantaged when products are marketed to them as being important, but these products repeatedly prove to be unaffordable for them. This increase in rates of mental distress and diseases of despair have been attributed to the flaws in contemporary capitalism and policies associated with the ideology of neoliberalism, which seeks to release markets from all restrictions and reduce or eliminate government assistance programs. The overall loss of employment in affected geographic regions, and stagnant wages and deteriorating working conditions along with the decline of labor unions and the welfare state, are widely hypothesized factors. As such, some scholars have characterized deaths of despair as driven by austerity policies and privatization as "social murder".
The changes in the labor market also affect social connections that might otherwise provide protection, as people at risk for this problem are less likely to get married, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to experience social isolation. However, some experts claim the correlation between income and mortality/morbidity rate is only coincidental. Anne Case and Angus Deaton argue that "after 1999, blacks with a college education experienced even more severe percentage declines in income than did whites in the same education group. Yet black mortality rates have fallen steadily, at rates between 2 and 3 percent per year for all age groups." Many other examples from Europe also show that decreased incomes and/or increased unemployment do not, in general, correlate with increased mortality rates. They argue that the ultimate cause is the sense that life is meaningless, unsatisfying, or unfulfilling, rather than strictly the basic economic security that makes these higher order feelings more likely.
Recent data show that diseases of despair pose a complex threat to modern society and that they are not correlated only to the economic strength of an individual. Social connections, level of education, place of residence, medical condition, mental health, working opportunities, subjective perception of one's own future – all of these play a role in determining whether the individual will develop diseases of despair or not. The researches identified that fragmentation, including fragmentation of the family, over tha last several decades had led to rising isolation and distrust, and a lack of neighborly support. These trends have been worsened, partly, by social media. According to Daniel George, associate professor of humanities and public health sciences, Penn State College of Medicine,
There is more loneliness, more alienation, a loss of trust among people, less neighborly interactions. People talked about just feeling an absence of actual human connection online with technology and electronic devices, and that it has taken the place of tangible, real human connection — and that that compounds loneliness.
Additionally, the younger generations are more and more influenced by social media and other modern technologies, which may have unexpected and unfavourable effects on their lives as well. For example, according to a study from 2016, the use of social media "was significantly associated with increased depression."
Diseases of despair differ from diseases of poverty because poverty itself is not the central factor. Groups of impoverished people with a sense that their lives or their children's lives will improve are not affected as much by diseases of despair. Instead, this affects people who have little reason to believe that the future will be better. As a result, this problem is distributed unevenly, for example by affecting working-class people in the United States more than working-class people in Europe, even when the European economy was weaker. It also affects White people more than racially disadvantaged groups, possibly because working-class White people are more likely to believe that they are not doing better than their parents did, while non-White people in similar economic situations are more likely to believe that they are better off than their parents.
Starting in 1998, a rise in deaths of despair has resulted in an unexpected increase in the number of middle-aged White Americans dying (the age-specific mortality rate). By 2014, the increasing number of deaths of despair had resulted in a drop in overall life expectancy. Anne Case and Angus Deaton propose that the increase in mid-life mortality is the result of cumulative disadvantages that have occurred over decades, and that solving it will require patience and perseverance for many years, rather than a quick fix that produces immediate results. The number of deaths of despair in the United States has been estimated at 150,000 per year in 2017.
Even though the main cause of diseases of despair may not be purely economical, the consequences of this phenomenon are, in terms of money, expensive. According to a report from 2016, alcohol misuse, misuse of illegal drugs and non-prescribed medications, treatment of associated disorders and lost productivity cost the U.S. more than $400 billion every year. About 40 percent of those costs were paid by government, which implies a huge cost of alcohol and drug misuse to taxpayers. Another study claims even higher costs of around $1.5 trillion in economic loss, loss of productivity and societal harm.
The phrase diseases of despair has been criticized for medicalizing problems that are primarily social and economic, and for underplaying the role of specific drugs, such as OxyContin, in increasing deaths. While the disease model of addiction has a strong body of empirical support, there is weak evidence for biological markers of suicidal thoughts and behaviors and no evidence that suicide fits a disease model. The use of the phrase diseases of despair to describe suicide in medical literature is more reflective of the medical model than suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
The new numbers also speak to the acute mental health crisis that's run parallel to the pandemic: Deaths from drug overdoses reached over 106,000 last year — another major factor reducing life expectancy, according to the second CDC analysis released on Thursday. Deaths by suicide and from liver disease, or cirrhosis, caused by alcohol also increased — shortening the average American life span.
Part of the mechanism behind the worldwide rise in diseases of despair is suggested, with evidence provided below, to be the anxiety caused when particular forms of competition are enhanced....The effects of the advertising industry in making both adults, and especially children, feel inadequate, are also documented here
Such 'deaths of despair' have coincided with decades of economic decline for workers, particularly those with low levels of educational attainment; loss of social safety nets; and stagnant or falling wages and family incomes in the US, all of which are thought to have contributed to growing feelings of despair.
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