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Suicide and Substance Abuse Among Middle-Aged White People: An Alarming and Growing Epidemic

Surprises and white privilege aside, the fact is that white, middle-aged suicide/mid-life crisis is an alarming problem that must be given serious attention. It is a growing epidemic that is, literally, resulting in deadly consequences for those affected by its powerful and merciless grip.
11/13/2015 04:09pm ET | Updated November 13, 2016
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There has been a lot of buzz about the recent report conducted by recent Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and his co-author and wife, Anne Case. The study, published in late October, garnered interest from the entire spectrum of the journalistic community. It seems that everyone was commenting on the plight of middle-aged, white lower-income people.

While the report produced a plethora of information, some of the starker and more provocative findings were that:

· The mortality rate among white people between 45 and 54 years old had increased at alarming rates.

· The rise in deaths rates among middle-aged white Americans means that more than half have died since 1998.

· The death toll among this segment of the population is comparable to the 650,000 Americans who lost their lives during the AIDS epidemic from 1981 to the present day, 2015.

· Death rates for white people with a high school diploma or lesser education rose by 22 percent.

What is more ironic about such grim statistics is that, according to Deaton and Case, the mortality rates for middle-aged people of other ethnic groups during this time period, both here in the United States and abroad, actually declined or remained steady. This was particularly true in the case of African Americans.

What gives?

Unlike many black and Latino/a people, the white men and women (mostly men) were not waging futile battles against heart disease, homicide and diabetes. Rather, these individuals were taking their own lives by substance abuse and suicide at unprecedented rates. These are people who are dying at their own hands by engaging in behavior so self destructive that they have altered the life expectancy of the entire white, middle-aged population across educational and income lines.

Again, what is happening here?

The fact is that black and Latino people, particularly men of both groups, still die at considerably younger ages than white men, yet their life expectancies are slowly improving. The same cannot be said for the new, suddenly at-risk white, middle-aged cohort. These are the men and women who came of age in the mid- to late-1970s and early 1980s, mid- to late-baby boomers and older Gen Xers. These are the people, particularly those who are lower income, who have suffered drastic levels of economic and emotional instability and dysfunction. In a society that often equates whiteness with power and success, falling short and being unable to partake in such achievements undoubtedly magnifies the psychological pain and resentment of many members of this social demographic.

These are the men and women (mostly men) who have largely bought into the arrogant, brash, and largely misguided illusion that if they worked hard enough, were smart enough, good at what they did, attractive enough, married a respectable spouse, socialized in the correct social circles, harbored condescension, disdain and/or contempt toward the right people (e.g., poor people, radical women, gays and lesbians, many minority groups, the disabled, etc.) that they could rapidly ascend up the social climbing ladder and head ever onward toward pursuit of the American dream. Rather, many people of this age and racial demographic have come to realization that the ladder has been pulled out from under them. They have driven down a dead end road so-to-speak. As a result, alcohol, drug use and related vices have served as a tragic yet reliable refuge from an environment and reality often filled with despair. A reliable form of self-medication, so to speak. A sad commentary for sure.

In a world where we are constantly being bombarded with negative information detailing chronically gruesome and depressing statistics of the physical, social, psychological and economic maladies that disproportionately affect communities of color, I was shocked to find similarly sordid statistics for white middle-aged people. It was almost surreal.

Surprises and white privilege aside, the fact is that white, middle-aged suicide/mid-life crisis is an alarming problem that must be given serious attention. It is a growing epidemic that is, literally, resulting in deadly consequences for those affected by its powerful and merciless grip.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.