I heard a story recently that broke my heart a bit. An old friend of mine lost his brother and it is my understanding that this loss of life is another example of what is deemed "Deaths of Despair": a loss of life due to drugs, alcohol or suicide.
In the 1890's, Emile Durkheim argued that larger social phenomena resulting in the loss of dignity in people’s lives and the breakdown of communities around them provide the backdrop to these deaths. This idea still rings true today and to me, could be the largest problem that we see as country that nobody seems to want to talk about. Why talk about widespread despair when you can talk about cocaine in the White House or a submarine failure? That is sarcasm if you could not tell.
Between 1999 and 2017, midlife mortality from drug overdoses increased by nearly 400%. Suicide rates significantly increased over those years (10.4 per 100,000 to 14.1) and between 2020 and 2021, there was a 4% increase, the largest over the past two decades. Lastly, it is estimated that more than 140,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death. When you look at statistics, all you see is numbers but behind those numbers is human life. It is someone's brother or sister, mother or father, wife or husband, friend, co-worker or neighbor. Like a wave in the ocean, each loss of life has a ripple effect through the lives of those who knew the deceased. That ripple continues to grow until we reach the point we are at today where I can assume almost everyone reading this has known or lost someone close to them due to one of the three causes listed above.
So where do we go from here?
If we follow Durkheim’s logic, the first thing we should address is dignity. This term is defined as the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect. With dignity, there is a sense of pride in oneself and a certain level of self-respect. For most, this can come in the work that we do, the role we play in our families lives, and our ability to look at ourselves in the mirror and understand that your life matters...because it does. If you feel "not worthy", take a look at the people in your life. Are these relationships positive or negative? Are you participating in any activities that you find joy in? If not, start doing that. Lastly, are you physically taking care of yourself? Physical activity plays a huge role in self-esteem and self-efficacy and it is imperative that we move our body in order to feel better.
The next area to address would be community. Community is a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals. In the past, these communities were in person. There was church, the general store, the town square, or other events that brought people together IN PERSON. This concept has been lost in recent decades and, citing Durkheim, centuries. The result of this is that we feel a lack of belonging. When we feel like we do not belong, we feel like we don’t matter. To fix this, there are groups out there for just about every topic or interest imaginable. You can join a support group, volunteer at a local organization, or find a group that has shared hobbies or activities. Just being around people and socializing with like minded individuals always feels good. If you are shy or unsure, do more listening than talking at these gatherings and try to serve others.
Lastly, if you look up the antithesis of despair, the word hope appears. We cannot lose hope in anything that we do. You never know when your lot is going to change. It might be today, it might be tomorrow, it might be next month, year or decade but the mission will always remain the same: win the day.
I have to say, when I hear about the loss of life, I always think, “What if they could have made it one more day?” You hear stories all the time from people who have hit rock bottom, who say they don’t know how they survived that time, but then one day, everything changed and they got their life back in order. They stopped abusing themselves. They found people to help them. They never lost hope and their dignity started to return.
That day can be today.