Epidemic of Despair

In my tenure as Health Commissioner I have been involved in a number of serious public health issues including West Nile Virus, SARS and even a pandemic.  Our healthcare systems collaborated to help mitigate the crisis and minimize the negative impact on our community in a timely manner.  But none of these outbreaks prepared me for the current epidemic.  This epidemic is subtle, silent and is quietly impacting people and families and businesses all though out this country and in our region.

Epidemic of Despair

The epidemic I am talking about is one of despair.  Untreated medical issues like depression or anxiety can worsen over time and make us vulnerable to making poor choices that may relieve anxiety for a short time, but leave us with family and work issues that only exacerbate the underlying problem.  When you are living a life you feel is out of control, inauthentic and even chaotic, you can easily become filled with despair.  I am talking about suicide, addiction to drugs or porn or gambling or all sorts of other distractions.  When this happens to an increasing number of folks, you have an epidemic of despair.

In 2015, two Princeton professors identified that middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. with a high school diploma or less have experienced increasing midlife mortality since the late 1990s.[1]  In addition they determined that the cause of this increase was due to what they call “deaths of despair”.

All-cause mortality, ages 45-54 for US White non-Hispanic (USW), US Hispanics (USH), and six comparison countries: France (FRA), Germany (GER), the United Kingdom (UK), Canada (CAN), Australia (AUS), and Sweden (SWE).

Deaths of despair graph #2                                                       Deaths of despair graph #1

The increase in deaths in this population can be attributed to three issues:  death by drugs and alcohol, suicide, or liver disease and cirrhosis.

Suicide and Accidental Overdoses Increasing

You may be thinking–surely, that is not happening here.  Unfortunately we experienced a 44% increase in both suicides and accidental drug overdoses in Allen County, Indiana  in 2017.  In both cases, the average age of these individuals was early forties – they left behind families and colleagues.  Deaths of despair are the tip of the iceberg.  The World Health Organization estimates that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide.  Approximately one in five Americans experience some form of treatable mental illness each year.[2]  They are your family members, your colleagues or maybe even you.

What Can We Do?

So what can we do about this?  This medical problem, like most, requires a multidisciplinary approach and augmenting our current medical and mental health infrastructure to effectively identify and treat medical problems like depression or anxiety.  This will take new public- private partnerships like The Lutheran Foundation’s Regional Mental Health Coalition.  But what about you?  If you have concerns about friends or family or even yourself, visit LookUp to find out more about these important treatable medical issues.  Let’s work together to turn this epidemic around.

[1] https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/casetextsp17bpea.pdf

[2] https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers


Submitted on behalf of the Regional Mental Health Coalition of Northeast Indiana and written by Dr. Deb McMahan, Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health.


If you or someone you know is experiencing signs of distress, please reach out to a mental health professional or get confidential, free support and text LOOKUP to 494949.

If you live in Indiana and need help finding a behavioral health provider, visit Find Help or call (800) 284-8439.

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