Living through the social and economic factors of despair

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Warren Buffett will tell you, “someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago”.

Sounds cozy.

I will tell you that expression goes either way. Sometimes, someone is struggling because someone cut down a resource long ago. Or the tree isn’t as tall as the person needs.

When things are not what you expect, the human condition is to despair. This category of grief and anxiety leads people to act in ways that cause harm to their health.

What are diseases of despair?

A disease of despair is one leading to death due to drug or alcohol abuse and suicide.

Much like the symptoms of an overdose, the circumstances of despair will vary depending on exposure to unmanageable factors.

In lower-income communities, researchers cite drugs/alcohol as a significant cause of accidental death. But stagnant incomes or low wages are not a good enough explanation for poor mortality — because overdoses under intoxication are on the rise across all social divides.

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Photo by Simeon Muller on Unsplash

Researchers admit they do not understand suicide and accidental death. Yet, we know they are cumulative:

  • Relationships fall apart.
  • Jobs no longer give satisfaction.
  • Wages cannot meet demands of our lives.
  • Once stable communities, no longer provide and protect.

Throw intoxication and addiction into the mix and you have a recipe for desperation.

“I have had enough”

Be it an accident or intentional, it’s not possible to know if someone is about to kill themselves. But data suggests adversity in a person's early part of their life is a primary cofactor.

As we learn more about cases of abuse and neglect, research shows these experiences can cause changes in the brain. Studies recall the belief that life’s early circumstances alter our behaviors. And evidence shows us suffering endures even after the hardship has passed.

How bad is it?

Diseases of despair cause more deaths than motor vehicle traffic crashes and the rate are rising at what appears to be an exponential rate — with the National Institute on Drug Abuse citing 70,200 people dying from drug overdoses in 2017 (an increase of about 10 percent over the prior year!)

While there has been a lot of attention given to the Opioid Epidemic, our lense for seeing our results is not broad enough.

Many of the problems with following these figures become even more complicated that there is no central body tracking this information. Besides waiting to see if more loved one's fall victim to acts of despair, the methods we have to total and sort through 3rd party information will take time to see if our actions today are making an impact.

The result is a lagging socioeconomic indicator: we won’t know how our decisions will change the information until after the fact.

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Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash

Desperation is a zero-sum game

The term “Disease of despair” wasn’t in my vocabulary at the time these figures were last compiled. But I can now tell you we will add at least two more individuals to the count from my extended family alone.

As we look forward to 2020, I’m writing hoping more people will begin talking about issues of despair. And hope we can find new ways to address them. The rest of what I can do now is speculation — like one expects a financial bubble (where people will also tell you):

“Speculative bubbles do not end like a short story, novel, or play. There is no final denouement that brings all the strands of a narrative into an impressive final conclusion. In the real world, we never know when the story is over.” — Robert Shiller.