by Lillie Sauer
On my way to the recycling bin the other day, newspaper in hand, I spotted the headline of the front page ― “Whites in Ozarks dying at higher rates.” (1) Reading further and seeing phrases such as “despair epidemic” and “excess deaths” I couldn’t help but scoff. It’s not that I don’t think the news of particular groups of people dying in larger proportions than others of a similar demographic is newsworthy. It is always a concern when particular causes of death are disproportionately spread among people of certain demographics. The headlining piece gave some statistics of the despaired dead, citing a 585% increase in drug overdoses, 763% increase in binge drinking deaths, and 30% increase in suicides over a 20-year span Still, upon further reading of this article and others like it, I only found myself questioning even more what the purpose of this piece of news was. (2) There has been little to no discussion of despair in terms of mental health, so apparently, we have reverted to talking about psychological problems in ambiguous and ignorant terms.
My issue with the language of these articles is threefold. First, they reduce the causes of these substance abuse- and suicide-related deaths to a vague notion of despair. To be fair, some of the articles go a bit further than this and talk about factors such as the possibility of correlation with the collapsing labor market for the uneducated or the weakening “traditional structures of social and economic support.” (These explanations bring up problems of their own, which I will discuss later.) (3) Second, the language involved suggests that while a disproportionate number of white people dying equals a “despair epidemic,” the same with respect to any other ethnic group is simply the way things are. This is not merely uncharitable interpretation on my part. The articles in question express such things quite explicitly: “Populations of color have experienced greater and more longstanding economic stresses but haven’t seen death rates go up” and “It’s as if poorly educated whites have now taken over from blacks as the lowest rung of society in terms of mortality rates.” Third and finally, white people are not dying at higher rates than other ethnic groups and ― it really should go without saying ― they are not the only ethnicity experiencing “despair.” Pointing out the rising rates of white people dying doesn’t help us get any closer to the causes of increase in deaths, unless a simple lack of melanin is to blame.
One point of concern is the study itself, which initially was conducted in 2015 by Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University and reanalyzed in 2017. Upon their second analysis of the data, they discovered that those aged 25-64, without college degrees, were seeing the greatest increase in deaths of this nature. By way of explanation, they point to the “widespread erosion of institutions that provided stability in American life for much of the 20th century: the manufacturing industry, the church, unions and stable marriage.” Having had merely anecdotal experience with all but 7 years of the last century, I cannot personally attest to the validity of this theory. From the little that I know of certain parts of the country at a few specific times in the past 50 years, though, it’s by no means a bad theory. The fact that we see this especially in the uneducated populations of the Midwest makes sense, as they tend to rely on traditional customs and structures, rather than social and academic progress; much more than do those living on the east and west coasts. This is likely a matter of resource distribution and the personal values that play a significant role in determining what resources a person thinks he or she needs. Case and Deaton offer plenty of reasons why people might be in this situation, and they predict that it will continue to worsen for these populations, but offer no suggestions as to how we might change things for the better.
Perhaps Case and Deaton should not be expected to provide us with such suggestions, but I don’t see the point in conducting a study like this without the intention of sparking a dialogue of progress, especially when it gets off on the wrong foot by asking for sympathy for white people living in Missouri, Oklahoma, and the like, and then proceeds to stick that foot directly into its mouth by comparing their despair to that experienced by any other race in this country that finds itself subjected to racist behavior and institutions. In the real world, a disproportionate number of black men are being killed by police officers and in a majority of states, deaths of people of color outnumber those of white people, despite their far smaller share of the general population. (4) So even with these soaring numbers of white deaths from “despair,” privilege, in many ways, still belongs to white Americans.
Why is “despair” the central focus in in our discussions of this problem anyway? My initial inclination to scoff was mostly in response to the flippant usage of the word. Not only does it explain nothing about what is happening to these people in their daily lives that causes them to turn to drugs or suicide for relief, but it makes the problem sound much simpler than it is. Upon further reading of their findings – combined with a little bit of common sense and a background in psychology – it seems quite obvious to me that the discussion of this data sidesteps the issue in the worst possible way. Here, plainly in front of us, are several crazy-high numbers associated with deaths from substance abuse and suicide. But rather than have a discussion about the atrocious state of mental health care in America, we have made this a politically-charged discussion of unstable social structures and ― let’s not stop there ― race. The problem I see with using the word “despair” is not that it is inaccurate, but that it is crude and obfuscating and thus, unhelpful. From my perspective, this whole issue is obviously first and foremost a case of our failing mental health care and educational systems, and for these failings, we have largely our failing government to blame.
Finally, in reading numerous articles discussing this study, I have found no reason why this issue should be discussed with regard only to white people. The possible factors that the authors suggest might be contributing to the increase in white deaths, are in no way unique to white people. If anything, they are a greater burden upon other ethnic groups in America than whites in almost every case. The only difference, as I mentioned earlier, is that white people are now dying at rates closer to those of other races. Still, if we look at these rates proportional to the race of the population in question, which a lot of these studies aren’t doing when talking about these numbers, there is still a huge disparity in overall quality of life between whites and other ethnic groups. As I see it, not only is the invocation of race here arbitrary, it is ignorant, insensitive, feckless, and regressive.