Lives (And Deaths) Of Quiet Desperation

After years of increasing longevity, studies are showing that the death rate is rising, but only for one group — white Americans between the ages of 45 and 54.  The divergence in the trend lines may be inexplicable, but it is unmistakable.  While death rates are falling in other first-world countries, and for African-Americans and Hispanics in the United States, they are rising for middle-aged whites.

The circumstances of the deaths all point to mental health issues as an underlying cause for the anomaly.  As the Wall Street Journal reports, between 1999 and 2013 deaths from suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, and chronic liver disease all increased for that population demographic, even as the incidence of other common causes for mortality, such as lung cancer, declined.  The studies also show that the increase in the mental health-related causes of death is particularly notable among middle-aged whites with no more than a high school education, although increases also were observed among better-educated segments of the population, too.

The experts aren’t sure why the mortality trend is affecting this particular group.  Some point to increases in mental health issues among white Americans and musculoskeletal problems that have left people in chronic pain — and therefore ripe for self-medication through alcohol or addiction to powerful painkillers — but those don’t seem like reasons that should target one demographic group to the exclusion of others, or for that matter should affect Americans but not Germans, British, or Canadians.

Other experts say that “economic stress” is the culprit, and that many Americans have reached middle age only to find that they are less well off than their parents, when the “American Dream” we heard about growing up is supposed to result in increases in wealth and happiness from generation to generation.  That rationale might explain why Americans are being affected as opposed to those in other countries — but is belief in the “American Dream” really so profoundly different among different demographic groups that it would explain the different death rates?

In Walden, Henry D. Thoreau wrote:  “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Many of us know people who have succumbed to that desperation, but we aren’t sure precisely why.  We don’t know why they are prone to addiction, or depression, or suicidal thoughts when others in similar circumstances manage to deal with their problems and forge ahead — but these studies indicate that their stories are sufficiently commonplace to create a clear and disturbing statistical trend.

Our grandparents and parents would scoff at the idea that the “American Dream” was a bad thing.  Could it be that its aspirational notions have created expectations that, if unrealized, produce disappointment so crushing that it cannot be borne?  I’m skeptical of that conclusion, but I nevertheless wonder why so many people apparently are so desperately unhappy about their lives, and what we can do to change that trend.

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