I want to share with you an extraordinary chart, one that shows the immense cost of loneliness, brokenness, and despair. From Scott Winship, the director of Senator Mike Lee’s invaluable Social Capital Project, here are opiate overdoses by educational level and marriage:
Social Capital Project opioids report coming this morning . . . pic.twitter.com/btQNzTbZf2— Scott Winship (@swinshi) October 31, 2017
But what truly shocks is the overwhelmingly disproportionate impact on single Americans — both divorced and never-married. Here are the same data in a different graph:
Princeton University’s Anne Case and Angus Deaton have coined the term “deaths of despair” to describe the epidemic of American opioid overdoses, suicides, and alcohol-related fatalities. Put simply, Americans are killing themselves at a stunning rate. In 2016 drug overdoses claimed 64,000 lives, and, as the Social Capital Project report notes, “opioid overdose deaths alone accounted for nearly two-thirds of drug overdose deaths, and have surpassed the all-time peaks of annual deaths caused (individually) by car crashes, H.I.V., and guns.”
The result is an actual decline in American life expectancy — not one due to a disease outbreak or cancer surge but rather due to Americans in such deep emotional pain that they’re essentially quitting on a productive life and instead seeking to ease their pain through drugs, alcohol, or — in extreme cases —the wrong end of a gun.
Our national response is so often focused on the means of self-destruction: What can we do about drugs? What can we do about guns? But it’s time to ask a different, deeper question: What can we do about despair?
If you look at the data in Winship’s report, you’ll see there’s no easy way to choke off the supply of opioids. Americans get them from prescriptions, yes, but also in the form of cheap heroin and fentanyl that has flooded the market. Nor is the problem confined to people who first receive lawful prescriptions, get hooked, and never escape their addictions. Yes, that happens, but it’s also true that many millions of Americans obtain pills from family and friends without prescriptions. They’re seeking the high, not the pain relief.
Moreover, if you’ve ever known a drug addict, you know that treatment, perversely enough, often precedes terrifying overdoses. They detox, lose their resistance, then take their old drug dosages and die. Addicts will crawl over broken glass to obtain their next fix, and even the wealthiest families with the most resources know that drug treatment is a hit-or-miss affair. With opioids, all too often it’s a miss.
How much more evidence do we need of the absolute cultural necessity of family repair?
So yes, let’s fight opioid addiction with the same urgency we’d bring to any other public-health crisis. But how much more evidence do we need of the absolute cultural necessity of family repair? Opioid statistics are just the latest confirmation of the warning from Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone.”
Poverty, criminality, ignorance, and despair — these are the four horsemen of the family apocalypse, and there is no despair quite like the despair of loneliness. A lonely man or a lonely woman seeks relief, and to hear addicts tell it, there is no euphoria quite like the narcotic haze. For a time, everything is okay. For a time, they feel peace. And don’t we all seek peace?
Our political culture doesn’t talk enough about families. You can spend billions on drug-treatment centers, but which public policy will keep a husband faithful to his wife or train a fatherless son to be a husband and a dad? Moreover, if we “focus on the family,” do we not by necessity have to confront the false ideologies of radical individual autonomy, sexual experimentation, and self-actualization? Don’t we have to double-down on the faith-based institutions that all too many in our body politic seem determined to shame and suppress?
Of course addiction can strike anyone, but the data are overwhelming. Not every category of American is equally vulnerable. Though an intact family isn’t a foolproof shield against hopelessness, despair, and addiction, it’s still a shield. Do we want to combat the opioid crisis? If so, let’s start in the home. Let’s start with a mom and dad who love each other and stay together — through good times and bad. Let’s start with a culture that celebrates marriage and a community that encourages fidelity. Let’s treat addicts, yes, but let’s not forget that while there’s no way to inoculate any person against addiction, a life of faith, hope, and love is a good start.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.