Alas, one of my favorite political magazines, The Weekly Standard, is now dead. Before expiring, though, it published “‘Deaths of Despair’: What can be done about Americans’ declining life expectancy?” It’s a sobering read. What follows is drawn from it:
On 29 November 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (aka the CDC) released three disturbing reports. One of them, the latest installment of an annual overview of “Mortality in the United States,” disclosed that American life expectancy decreased in 2017 for the third year in a row. This hasn’t happened since 1918. But 1918 was the year of the great Spanish Flu Pandemic and the last year of World War One. It’s scarcely surprising that lots of people died that year. In fact, American life expectancy plunged a full fifteen years in 1918. But it bounced back to an all-time high the very next year.
America isn’t a third world country. We’re affluent, well-nourished, secure from war. Today’s rising mortality rate is — according to the CDC director, Robert Redfield — “largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide.”
The suicide rate has been higher in the past. It spiked dramatically (and rather understandably) during the Great Depression. But it has never risen so steadily over such a prolonged period of time. The all-time American low for suicides was in 1999. Since then, it has grown by 33 percent, to a rate that’s as high as any since the 1930s.
Deaths from drug overdoses were rising by a steady three percent annually until 2015. Suddenly, the rate accelerated to sixteen percent per year.
In 2017, twenty-two out of every 100,000 Americans died by drug overdose. Another fourteen out of every 100,000 died by suicide.
There’s plenty of data available, but, thus far, there are no convincing and comprehensive explanations for what Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University have called a surge of “deaths of despair.”
It’s difficult to blame it all on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Does economic anxiety explain the crisis? The CDC’s companion report on suicide shows that the rate of suicide increased at the same pace before the recession of 2008 that it did during and after the recession. Moreover, while suicides have increased among people old enough to have lost jobs to automation — one suggested explanation for the surge — they increased at the same rate among those too young to have held such jobs.
Is there a medical explanation? From 1999 to 2014, the percentage of Americans on antidepressants increased by 65 percent, even without counting opioids and other painkillers. Further, more Americans than ever before are in therapy. In 2016, people who had been diagnosed with mental illness were over 25 percent more likely to receive professional treatment than in 2003. And yet the rate of suicides continues to rise.
Some are beginning to suggest that declines in marriage rates, family solidarity, religious affiliation, and social engagement may correlate with, and play into, a rising rate of “deaths of despair.” Divorced people, for example, and especially divorced men, are at heightened risk of suicide.
Is the rise in such deaths linked in any way, whether simple or complex, to the rise in the religious “nones”?
Churches and families and certain other organizations provide an organic social safety net, and work powerfully against social isolation. But, unfortunately, they can’t be strengthened by increased taxation, medication, or government regulation.