The Death by Despair Crisis: Five New Ways to Look for Causes and Solutions

In my historic neighborhood of Butte, Montana, there is a steep street that is as icy in winter as it is dusty in summer. At one of its intersections, stands a huge red and black billboard. The words never fail to catch my attention: “DEAD.” Then in smaller letters, sign spells it - “Drugs End All Dreams.” To me it represents a form of warning: “You are now entering the land of Death by Despair.”

During an April snow shower
During an April snow shower

This land is not a neighborhood in Butte, or a region of Montana. Every community in this country has homes, families and individuals devastated by it.

Last month, with the title: “Explaining the Rising Death Rate among Middle Aged White People”, NPR interviewed two economists, Angus Deaton and Anne Case. Together, they have studied the crisis of suicide, illegal drugs and alcohol abuse. They also include, in their research, the abuse of a new generation of extraordinarily addictive prescription pain killers. All contribute, for the first time in centuries, to shortening life expectancy to a level of substantial statistical significance. Case, bleakly, confirms that “There is not a part of the country that has not been touched by this.” And Deaton adds:”…People affected have lost a sense of status and belonging. And these are classic preconditions for suicide.”

During the failed social experiment known as Prohibition many young Americans moved to Europe, especially Paris. Most had immense talent and a fondness for alcohol. Collectively, history remembers them, admiringly, as the legendary “Lost Generation.” Lost, maybe to this country, but this was a generation with a voracious appetite for life and on a quest for mighty dreams.

We are at risk now of losing a new generation whose dreams are inexorably vanishing into depression and the desolation of meth-houses. The deep malaise is not well understood, often dismissed as self-inflicted and largely ignored. History counts numerous generations lost and unsympathetically discarded by a majority oblivious to their screams for help.

In Search of Solutions

Politics in this country is now conducted in a state of semi-permanent anger. The growing trend to use the tragedy of others as a legitimate tactic of scoring political points is despicable. The truth, in my view, is that both parties have neglected the white working class for years. In a democracy, however, solutions to all social ills have clear political dimensions. Elected officials can facilitate economic opportunities, fund effective programs of rehabilitation and rein in over-prescription practices.

Ultimately, Politics, is unequipped to end a crisis of hopelessness. Answers, in my opinion, are found beyond Politics and Economics. What follow are suggested areas of enquiry.

What is the Purpose of Education? There is so much more to education than preparing someone to be professionally productive. My life would have been unbearably dull if I had not been exposed to philosophy, art, great music and poetry. There is something almost barbaric about reducing human worth to functionality. If one is systematically conditioned to seek value in productivity alone, inevitable periods of dysfunction will, frequently, result in despair.

The Role of Law Enforcement: When communities are routinely flooded with meth and heroin, law enforcement needs our full support. Expecting law enforcement alone to resolve a multilevel crisis is, utterly, unrealistic. Putting an end to epidemic self-destructive behavior is a communitywide effort in cooperation with policing.

The Price of the Spiritual Wasteland: At the onset of the so-called Age of Reason, in 17th century Europe, two, among the most brilliant and historically significant, mathematicians and scientists, had stark prophesies about reducing all human reality to the empirical. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) both warned that reason alone would never fully satisfy the human spirit. Pascal succinctly expressed it with his immortal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot understand.” Religion has been where humanity arrived when searching for meaning and a sense of its place in the universe. The mystery of existence is meant to be lived and not to be resolved. If society, bluntly, tears away from public education and popular culture this timeless and essential quest, the result is, ultimately, a spiritual wasteland. This does not mean public promotion of religion but an important education about what has nurtured humanity for millennia.

About Post-Enlightenment Europe, the brilliant historian, Karen Armstrong, crucially observed:” Dynamic optimism gave way to perplexing doubt and malaise… At the same time, that they celebrated the achievements of modern society, men and women, would also experience an emptiness, a void that rendered life meaningless.”

The Forces of Culture. There has been plenty of justified attention placed on the excessive role of money in Politics. I am even more troubled by the role of money in popular culture. Culture no longer evolves organically, it is dictated forcefully from above by the powerful voices of, among others, Silicone Valley, Hollywood etc. A multitude is left confused and alienated by a culture that no longer feels like home. Since Antiquity very wealthy patrons have supported the Fine Arts but, unlike today, they had practically no influence on popular culture

The Promise of Hope: The components of the “Death by Despair” calamity are towering but not insurmountable. When I visit a patient recovering from a suicide attempt or a drug overdose, I give myself two imperatives. First, I never bring up the reason for the hospital stay. Then, I only leave after I am able to get, from the patient, a smile or a laugh. I also tell family members:” Enough gloom! This room needs flowers and music.” Despairing people do not need advice. It is not a time for moralism or metaphysics, it is time for an expression of compassionate support. A, tirelessly, hopeful attitude is infectious. It pulls apart the dark curtains to let in the light of a possible brighter future to consider. To the existentially drowning, a smile and a friendly hand on the shoulder is a life vest.

Circles of people sincerely dedicated to hope within a community have a power that social programs often lack. Cells of compassion can grow spontaneously in schools, work places, churches, businesses and in the streets. Rejecting the omnipresent national anger, they can do wonder in giving many reasons to dream again. It takes no organization, just caring dedication and positive energy. As long we care we are never helpless.

Sign by the organization “Butte Cares”
Sign by the organization “Butte Cares”

We are losing a whole lot of people because we have purged society of hope and, to a large degree, joy. Without true compassion, without an understanding of the vulnerabilities and profound aspirations of human nature, we are doomed to perpetuate a hostile and meaningless environment.

The Easter Season can inspire us with the moral courage to answer this desperate call for help.

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