Diseases of Despair on the Rise During Covid
Most people have never heard of “diseases of despair.” It sounds like something from a Victorian novel, but diseases of despair are a very current and troubling issue.
There are three classes of these diseases: substance abuse disorders, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease. All are caused by a psychologically dysfunctional reaction to despair. What is despair? A quick google search lands the definition: “The complete loss or absence of hope.”
The United States had already been seeing an increase in diseases of despair over the past decade, highly connected to the recent opioid crisis. At first, it was mostly white working-class males from ages 45-54, but throughout the 2010’s it spread to most demographics.
In the age of Covid, occurrences of these diseases have skyrocketed with some estimates at a 10% increase - and some even at 60%! People feel high levels of disillusionment with the world around them. There has been a real change in peoples’ cognition and behaviors. Many are experiencing substantially higher rates of stress. Coronavirus, the economy, and social unrest all play a role in our current crisis.
One unfortunate effect of these combined crises? People are more isolated than ever before… and that means less emotional support. It’s a compounding problem: isolation worsens (or even triggers) despair, and of course there are far fewer coping resources available. In reaction, many get depressed and turn to self-medication. Further down the road comes addiction, health issues, and sometimes suicide.
When the diseases turn fatal, they become “deaths of despair.”
In a huge study conducted in Appalachian regions where the opioid crisis wreaked havoc, researchers found 4 indicators for the development of diseases of despair: hopelessness, low self-esteem, feeling unloved and worrying frequently. Unsurprisingly these are many of the same maladies leading to today's deaths of despair. Hopelessness about an uncertain future, low self-esteem from a struggling economy, feeling unloved during social distancing and worrying frequently about getting sick or losing money.
What can we do if we know someone falling victim to diseases of despair? Well, since often they grow worse and lead to health complications or even suicide the situation calls for more proactive intervention. Someone suffering from severe alcoholism, drug addiction, or suicidal behavior needs to be in a secure environment.
Appeal to your loved one to reach out to a suicide hotline, substance abuse hotline, or a trusted and legitimate mental health professional. If all else fails and someone’s life is endangered it’s time to call 911.
One good way to preventatively fight against diseases of despair is to start young. Fortify your children against dysfunctional coping strategies. Cultivate positive self-esteem in children giving them the confidence to reach out for help when needed. Encourage healthy friendships, healthy life habits, and give them good mental health coping tools.
Diseases of despair and deaths of despair are not light topics, nor should they be taken lightly in life experience. Sometimes professional help is truly the best way forward. With some guidance and resilience, we are going to see brighter days ahead.
If you or someone you know needs psychiatric or therapeutic help, please don’t hesitate to contact Bregman Medical Group. We have decades of experience treating addiction, depression, and various other disorders. We offer online treatment right to your phone, schedule at www.bregmanmd.com, or call 305-740-3340.