They are called “Deaths of Despair,” a reference to suicide, drug overdose and alcohol related deaths, coined by authors and professors Angus Deaton and Anne Case, and the title of their new book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” written before the novel coronavirus made its first appearance.
Since 1999 they’ve tracked the number of these deaths, discovering that the majority of victims are white, non-urban, high school graduates, centered mostly in Midwestern states, felled in many instances by the opioid epidemic that began in the late 90’s: people who have witnessed the world change around them and got lost trying to adapt. The two professors’ research has spurred the Social Capital Project to take the statistics back even further.
But now Covid 19 has struck, and those numbers are expected to skyrocket as the isolation of “stay at home” orders take its toll while massive, unprecedented job losses add on more stress. We’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
“May 18th is the first day legally in Texas that you can evict people from their business or their home,” says Dr. Matt Chalmers, a Frisco, TX chiropractor who monitors how stress impacts the human body. “What I’m expecting is that come around June, we’re going to start seeing the ‘despair’ piece of this economic devastation begin to bubble up to the surface.”
Deaths of despair have been on a stark upward trajectory for the past 20 years, doubling since 1999.
A new report released last week by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies predicts around 68,000 lives may be lost to despair as a consequence of Covid 19. “I think we’re going to start to see a very quick reversal of ‘let’s get back to normal,” says Dr. Chalmers. “We’re going to try to go back to normal and it’s not going be there, and I think it’s going to create a second wave of despair.”
It will be for future historians to compile today’s numbers and explain what happened to people in the summer of 2020, the toll taken by uncertainty and isolation, tragedy and unemployment, and how those who were growing up at the time adjusted to new social norms. The full impact of the pandemic is just now rearing its deadly head in rural America, where health care systems aren’t prepared for the potential onslaught that could be lurking in shadows, and where new jobs and opportunities will be hardest to come by.
Death of despair, whether by suicide, drugs or drink, or a novel Coronavirus, seems an apt description to sum up 2020.
photo courtesy of Getty Images and the Social Capital Project