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Combating the Role of Increased Suicides and Overdoses in Declining Life Expectancy

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Recent research establishes that after decades of increased longevity, Americans are dying earlier, all too often at the prime of life due to drug overdoses, suicide, and a spike in diseases such as cirrhosis, liver cancer, and obesity (Healy, 2019; Woolf & Schoomaker, 2019). This research suggests that the recent decrease in life span is “driven by diseases linked to social and economic privation, a health care system with glaring gaps and blind spots, and profound psychological distress” (Healy, 2019) among large segments of our population, making millions of Americans increasingly vulnerable to “deaths of despair.”

I submit that the previously cited research documents a large and growing sense of desperation among many Americans. This article will explore some of my own speculations concerning possible causative factors underlying the decline in life expectancy in recent years in the US.

Oversecularization

Over the past several decades we have become an increasingly secular society. This shift in values has particularly been embraced by the business community, as will be discussed in the next section. I believe we suffer greatly both as individuals and as a society when we lose touch with belief in and respect for a beneficent higher power as a guiding influence in our lives.

Findings of a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2017 report that 90 percent of Americans believe in some kind of higher power (Fahmy, 2018). Even then, however, participation in religious services has declined dramatically over the past several decades, particularly among young adults (Pew Research Center, 2015). I believe this striking decline in active participation in communities of faith has contributed to the growing sense of isolation and desperation experienced by many Americans.

Anxiety Concerning Lack of Economic Security

Over the past several decades, many businesses, including the majority of corporations, have moved in the direction of viewing their workers as disposable units of production as opposed to valuable human beings with very personal needs and vulnerabilities.

A corporate mentality has evolved in which many companies have become increasingly intrusive into their employees’ lives, expecting them to be on call 24/7 to respond to off-hours calls and texts. Yet many CEOs will lay off thousands of workers at the drop of a hat in response to a significant decline in value of their company’s stock.

In this climate of pervasive economic insecurity, far too many workers are overburdened by work-related stress, with many being forced to work more than one job as a hedge against the relative insecurity of their primary source of employment.

Declining Emphasis on Family Life and Values

Close to half of all marriages end in divorce or separation (DePaulo, 2017), and over 40 percent of American children are born out of wedlock (CDC, 2021). In addition, fatherless children are at a substantially greater risk of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, suicide, poor educational performance, teen pregnancy, and engaging in criminal activity (Harvis, 2017).

Contributing factors to the decline in family life and values include the growing secularization of society, heavy pressures placed on working parents by today’s economy, and a substantial decline in both the amount and quality of interpersonal communication due to our overdependency on smartphones, computers. and other electronic devices.

The Plight of Millennials and Teens

Both millennials and teens face overwhelming obstacles in attempting to navigate these extremely challenging times.

Faced with extremely high costs of living, especially housing costs in major metropolitan areas, many millennials find themselves overburdened by current or anticipated debt. Excessive student loan debt is a large issue, as costs of college are at an all-time high with no foreseeable end in sight.

In today’s highly competitive economy, some form of post-high-school education is virtually essential in order for young people to secure jobs paying a living wage or better. In the face of this reality, it is not uncommon for young college graduates to be burdened by six-figure student loan debt. This grueling environment is a far cry from the friendlier, more accommodating circumstances that myself and my peers encountered when we entered the workforce in the early 1960s.

In addition to the struggles that young people have historically had to weather during their transition to adulthood, today’s youth are confronted by a deluge of harsh realities not of their own making. These include a ruthless and extremely polarized political environment in which lying, deceit, and the absence of ethical behavior has become the norm among many of our nation’s leaders. They have also inherited a devastating global warming crisis precipitated by prior generations’ irresponsible exploitation of precious natural resources.

Steps to Promote Positive Change

Highlighted next are a number of steps we can take to promote positive change in terms of our overall health and well-being.

Suggestions for Individuals and Families

A good starting point is to conduct an assessment of your own health status and initiate corrective action. An excellent starting point is the “Real Age Test,” an online assessment that you can access at www.sharecare.com/static/realage. I encourage you to serve as an effective role model for other family members by taking charge of your health.

Improve your family communication by setting an example and freeing yourself from overdependency on your computer, smartphone, and other intrusive devices. Work together as a family to revive the lost art of genuine interpersonal communication. In particular, let your children know that you are always available to provide support whenever they are feeling overwhelmed by troubling circumstances in their lives.

Suggestions for Treatment Programs

Program staff need to be sensitive to the close association between alcoholism, drug abuse, and major depression, which may trigger suicidal thoughts and plans. This needs to be discussed with clients in both group and individual counseling. Staff must also place a priority on familiarizing clients with crisis lines and other mental health resources in their communities, particularly those services available to people with limited financial means.

From a preventative standpoint, increased on-site interaction between treatment programs and public schools is definitely desirable. Programs desiring to provide this valuable service to both students and teachers should pursue necessary financial support from both public and private sources.

Suggestions for Society at Large

In addressing this broader topic, I will attempt to frame my suggestions in a manner that addresses salient societal issues at the root-cause level.

In regard to health care, as a society we must level the playing field and provide access to quality health care to all those in need. Of equal importance, we need a societal mandate to transition from our heavily profit-dominated sickness care system to a true health care system that places major emphasis on prevention, early intervention, and health enhancement.

We also need to foster a humanized business environment in which all workers are treated with dignity and respect and assured of job security, provided that they devote their working hours to diligently working to promote a shared organizational mission based on sound ethical principles.

Perhaps most important of all, we must all work to restore a shared sense of decency and respect for each other and an earnest desire to work together to make this a world where we are proud to raise our children. We all need to soften our hearts and move beyond the vicious partisan bickering that has poisoned the political arena while creating misplaced distrust and bitterness in dealing with our neighbors and, all too often, even our own families. Regarding the plight of our teenagers and young adults, we need to restore affordable tuition to both public and private universities to enable young people to prepare themselves for challenging and fulfilling careers.

And finally, in the realm of religion, religious leaders of all stripes must take bold steps to inspire their congregations to take decisive action, both individually and collectively, to combat the devastating crises facing both our nation and our planet. These include life-endangering global climate change, endless wars, stockpiling of nuclear weapons, and the need for responsible gun control.

All religious institutions must also embrace the fact no particular person or group has a monopoly on the truth and make their mission one of promoting universal love, respect, and wholehearted cooperation among all people.

References

John Newport, PhD

John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (2004). He is available for workshops, conference presentations, and staff trainings on all aspects of wellness and recovery, as well as for personal wellness and recovery coaching by phone. He can be reached at healingtucson@hotmail.com.

John Newport, PhD

John Newport, PhD, is an addiction specialist, writer, and speaker living in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Wellness-Recovery Connection: Charting Your Pathway to Optimal Health While Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction (2004). He is available for workshops, conference presentations, and staff trainings on all aspects of wellness and recovery, as well as for personal wellness and recovery coaching by phone. He can be reached at healingtucson@hotmail.com.

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