U.S.

Why Are Americans So Sad?

(Pixabay)
So-called diseases of despair have hit record rates nationwide, and the disintegration of the family may be one big reason why.

The Centers for Disease Control delivers sober news — average life expectancy at birth in the United States has declined for a third straight year due to extremely high rates of death from drug overdoses and suicide. As the Washington Post reports, this is the longest sustained decline in life expectancy since the early 20th century. Between 1915 and 1918, a period that included the First World War and the worldwide flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans, life expectancy showed a similar decline.

Today, we are at peace (with the exception of the occasional death in Afghanistan); we are experiencing an economic boom; and we face no epidemics of communicable diseases.

Some might say that our problems are those of overabundance. For millennia, our species was haunted by plagues, famines, and droughts. Our minds and bodies evolved to grab what nourishment we could when we could. Those years in the caves and on the savannah didn’t equip us very well to cope with a world of constantly available Frappuccinos and cupcakes — to say nothing of fentanyl.

But overabundance has been with us for decades, while the rise of deaths from overdoses and suicide is relatively recent. Nor are other developed nations seeing similar declines in life expectancy. In 2017, 70,237 Americans died from drug overdoses, which is higher than the peak of the HIV epidemic in 1995 or car-crash deaths in 1972.

As economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case of Princeton have been documenting for the past several years, the plagues we are suffering now are “diseases of despair.” These include cirrhosis of the liver, suicide, and drug overdoses. In 2015, the pair noted the decline of life expectancy among white, middle-aged Americans from these causes (outstripping other ethnic groups), and in a follow-up paper in 2017, they found that the trend was persistent. In addition to overdoses, this population was also more likely to report chronic pain, which is associated with depression and can be a marker for suicide. Case/Deaton cited family breakdown as one cause of the trend.

Suicide has been rising dramatically since 1999 and particularly since 2006. Rates in rural areas far exceed those in cities (perhaps due to the greater availability of guns).

There is some evidence that the fentanyl spike is ebbing — as the crack-cocaine craze did in the 1990s. Preliminary data from the first four months of 2018 show the number of drug overdoses plateauing or dropping slightly. An anti-overdose drug called naloxone may be making a difference.

But the overall picture of significant unhappiness in America is clear. Rates of depression have been rising for decades with marked increases since 2005.

What is making so many Americans turn to alcohol and drugs and still others take their own lives? Explanations will run the gamut. Usually, people will cite their own particular hobby horse, and I may be guilty of that. My obsession is family decline. Due to unmarriage and divorce, more Americans are living alone than at any time in our history. Let me quickly acknowledge that the steep rise in adolescent depression in recent years may well have more to do with social media than anything else. Jean Twenge’s work suggests that girls are particularly vulnerable to online cruelty.

But back to family decline. Not only do divorce and rapidly cycling relationships (and living arrangements) leave adults and especially children emotionally scarred, the loss of secure families also leaves millions of people lonely. In 2010, an AARP survey found that one-third of American adults were chronically lonely. In 2000, only one in five had reported feeling that way. The Atlantic magazine has described loneliness as “more dangerous than obesity, and . . . about as deadly as smoking.” In Them, Senator Ben Sasse quotes psychiatrists who believe people are more comfortable describing themselves as depressed than lonely. They noticed that their patients felt “deep shame” about their own isolation.

There ought not to be shame about missing the company of others. We are not meant to be alone, and we don’t find emotional succor or physical satisfaction in relationships with screens. The Washington Post suggests that the solution may be found in more funding for mental-health services and drug treatment. Maybe. But it seems to me that we’re facing not so much a drug problem as a heartbreak problem. The road back to emotional health must include a reemphasis on commitment to family.

© 2018 Creators.com

Most Popular

Education

The Shame of the Teachers’ Unions

No other group has shown as much contempt for its own work during the coronavirus crisis as teachers. Their unions are actively fighting to keep kids out of the classroom and also to limit remote instruction, lest it require too much time and attention from people who are supposed to be wholly devoted to ... Read More
Education

The Shame of the Teachers’ Unions

No other group has shown as much contempt for its own work during the coronavirus crisis as teachers. Their unions are actively fighting to keep kids out of the classroom and also to limit remote instruction, lest it require too much time and attention from people who are supposed to be wholly devoted to ... Read More
World

Massive Explosions Devastate Beirut

A series of massive explosions detonated in Beirut on Tuesday, with footage showing a mushroom cloud and shockwave emanating from the city port. [embed]https://twitter.com/air_intel/status/1290676373485490177[/embed] It is still unclear what caused the explosions. Lebanese security forces claimed the ... Read More
World

Massive Explosions Devastate Beirut

A series of massive explosions detonated in Beirut on Tuesday, with footage showing a mushroom cloud and shockwave emanating from the city port. [embed]https://twitter.com/air_intel/status/1290676373485490177[/embed] It is still unclear what caused the explosions. Lebanese security forces claimed the ... Read More

What or Who Decides This Election?

We know where to watch in the next few weeks but have no real idea what we will be watching. Yet pundits, the media, and the Left seem giddy that their polls show a Trump slump, as if they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from 2016. But in truth, the news cycle over the next three months may well favor ... Read More

What or Who Decides This Election?

We know where to watch in the next few weeks but have no real idea what we will be watching. Yet pundits, the media, and the Left seem giddy that their polls show a Trump slump, as if they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing from 2016. But in truth, the news cycle over the next three months may well favor ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The World’s Worst Idea

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a little book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism. When Regnery asked me to write the book, I was happy to do it but wondered whether a book on socialism, a brief conspectus of its grotesque failures, would be necessary or useful. I wondered why anybody would be ... Read More
Politics & Policy

The World’s Worst Idea

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a little book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism. When Regnery asked me to write the book, I was happy to do it but wondered whether a book on socialism, a brief conspectus of its grotesque failures, would be necessary or useful. I wondered why anybody would be ... Read More
Culture

Monsters Galore

Vanity Fair, that peerless assessor of all things political, has bravely come out with the shocking opinion that the movies, TV, and our much-vaunted national media-industrial complex don’t hate right-wing women as much as they ought to, leading to the unjust and the always unhappy conclusion that people such ... Read More
Culture

Monsters Galore

Vanity Fair, that peerless assessor of all things political, has bravely come out with the shocking opinion that the movies, TV, and our much-vaunted national media-industrial complex don’t hate right-wing women as much as they ought to, leading to the unjust and the always unhappy conclusion that people such ... Read More
U.S.

Our Summer of Cultural Suicide

Cultural suicide used to be a popular diagnosis of why things suddenly just quit. Historians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee cited social cannibalism to explain why once-successful states, institutions, and cultures simply died off. Their common explanation was that the arrogance of success ... Read More
U.S.

Our Summer of Cultural Suicide

Cultural suicide used to be a popular diagnosis of why things suddenly just quit. Historians such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee cited social cannibalism to explain why once-successful states, institutions, and cultures simply died off. Their common explanation was that the arrogance of success ... Read More