Deaths from drug overdoses in the United States jumped more than 11 percent during the first four months of this year. The U.S. government said increased anxiety, social isolation and depression during the coronavirus quarantines led to more substance use. The lockdowns also disrupted efforts to slow drugs imported to the U.S. and some programs to deliver help to Americans struggling with addiction.
It’s the latest sign of the growing number of “deaths of despair”—a phrase coined by Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton to describe the shocking rise in U.S. deaths due to drug overdoses, alcoholic liver disease and suicide. Case and Deaton published a book on the subject in March, just as most of the U.S. was heading into quarantine.
Case and Deaton see the roots of despair in the areas of work and community—especially among Americans with low levels of education. Their job prospects are poor, as even jobs once open to people with only high school degrees or less have become fewer and fewer. Low education achievement is typically driven by family and community relationships that destroyed trust, such as divorce, absent fathers, transitory living situations. Then as adults, people with low levels of education are more likely to live relational lives devoid of faithful commitments, with few lasting marriages, many children raised by single parents, low church attendance, and rental communities in which neighbors come and go frequently.
Case and Deaton are onto something. Dead-end jobs and dead-beat dads do, indeed, lead to despair. When you can’t have faith that your work will provide and your relationships will last, hope flees and despair comes in. If anything, the conditions for despair have increased because of the coronavirus, as unemployment shot up and social interaction plummeted. During the quarantine, there have been anecdotal reports of higher rates of drinking and suicide—more signs of despair.
But Case and Deaton haven’t traced the roots as far down as they go, beyond the immediate material and emotional causes of despair to the beliefs below them. Despair has been around for millennia, affecting rich and poor and even those surrounded by relationships. Just reading through Psalms shows us that. Despair leads to the brink of death only if our beliefs have placed our ultimate hopes for our lives in the material gain of work or the emotional benefits of relationships.
The Christian faith, however, offers hope in a God who controls all the circumstances of life, who is powerful to save us from any trouble and who is so good He sent His Son Jesus to die for us—so we don’t need to despair.
Such a faith has been able to turn great hardship into abiding hope for generations of Christians. As far back as Job, who had both his work and family community destroyed. Yet Job still could say of God, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15). King David, who had his son turn against him and his kingdom taken from him, wrote, “As for me, I am poor and needy.” But then he followed it immediately with this: “but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God!” (Psalm 40:17)
The Apostle Paul described this hope in action, overcoming even the worst of circumstances: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:8-10).
In this time of death and despair, we should work to heal our bodies, rebuild our economies, repair our relationships, and confront the unjust inequities that beset our society. But most of all, we should point our hearts—and point others’ hearts—to Jesus, trusting that the one who has already died and risen to life has the power and goodness to carry us through whatever circumstances cause us despair.
J K Wall