I thought long and hard about what to write for my first post of 2020. Should I set an optimistic tone, despite living in an age where pessimism abounds? Should I make predictions for the coming year, ignoring the fact that news moves so quickly that predictive writing is a fool’s errand (indeed, overnight events in Iraq happened after writing this blog)? Should I hedge my bets and settle on a superficial topic, allowing events surrounding impeachment, conflict with Iran and North Korea and the start of the Democratic primary season to unfold further so that coming trends are easier to anticipate? Hmm…which way to go?

But once again, my best-laid plans were interrupted by unanticipated challenges—in this case, prompted by reading a couple articles that caused me to rethink both lessons of the recent past and the future challenges to doing political battle with Donald Trump in this election year.

Both articles were on the website Medium. Its entries are compiled from numerous writers; its editorial perspective skews to a younger audience and does not fit a traditional left/right pattern. The contents of the site often pique my curiosity and cause me to see the world through an unconventional lens.

On the eve of the New Year, I was intrigued by the title of one such article by Peter Burns: This One Little Forgotten Statistic Might Hold Clues to Why Trump Won the 2016 Presidential Election. Burns writes, “This number has to do with what some researchers have called “deaths of despair”…In the past 20 years, deaths from suicides, alcohol poisoning, and drugs have skyrocketed, achieving numbers not seen since the 1930’s. What is interesting is that there is one demographic that has seen a rapid rise in these types of deaths: single white men.”

We’ve seen numerous accounts of President Trump’s appeal to white, working-class Americans, but Burns’ coalescence of this voting block around the notion of “deaths of despair” was like a sucker-punch for me, prompting a deeper level of compassion for those individuals I often cavalierly dismiss as “Trump’s base.”

And then, on the dawn of the new year, I came across another article, again in Medium, Geographic Evidence that Gun Deaths are Cultural. Writer JC Campbell cites extensive research that illustrates “the gun death rate, gun homicide rate, and gun suicide rate within the country on a county by county basis.” Suicide rates are far higher in predominantly white, working-class counties.

I recommend both articles. And while they raise far more questions than they answer—and while I disagree with many implications in each article—they prompt an important conversation in this election year.

Suicide is a tragedy. While progressives often rail against gun violence, the fact that 60% of deaths caused by firearms are suicides is often overlooked. Usually, the psychological struggles that precede suicides are suffered alone or within small family units. We should all pay closer attention, seeing votes for Donald Trump as a symptom of a broader concern: the impact of loneliness, isolation and despair that—in its extreme—can lead to violence. Headlines often remind us of the violence perpetrated upon “the other” by white nationalists or the explosive results made manifest in mass killings. Far less reporting is devoted to the quiet, private deaths by suicide, or drug overdose or alcohol poisoning that, statistically, afflicts so many in President Trump’s base.

We must consider cultural tendencies in ways different communities deal with depression. We must develop sensitive, effective ways to address this reality when it confronts us as individuals, families and communities. We must educate one another about early warning signs and safeguards. And we must be constantly vigilant of our own behavior, being gentle with one another, knowing that life is both fleeting and fragile.

This was not the upbeat message I intended to write in the first week of the new year, but these articles served as stark reminders that we must be willing to confront elements of hopelessness and despair in our society. If not, we miss the opportunity to weave a social fabric that increases the potential for a happy and fruitful future for so many who feel excluded from a healthy and productive life—which is what we all seek for ourselves and one another.

One thought on “Deaths of Despair

  1. The focus of both Medium articles cited in your commentary come as no surprise to regular listeners of NPR-aired shows, notably WNYC’s On The Media and The New Yorker Radio Hour, both are available via podcast.

    Online readers can easily subscribe to Medium, as well as receive newsletters from the platform.

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