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Crisis of Despair: The Rise of Drug Abuse and Suicide among White, Middle-aged Americans

Every week it seems we hear about a new medical marvel that could save thousands of lives. Life expectancies are rising for almost every age and racial demographic in America and the developed world.


You noticed I said “almost.” As the New York Times reported last month, members of a certain American demographic are actually dying in significantly greater numbers than just a few years ago. Surprisingly enough, I’m talking about middle-age white Americans.


These findings were published by Nobel-prize winning economist Angus Deaton and his wife, Dr. Anne Case. According to the Times, Deaton and Case found that “the mortality rate for whites 45 to 54 years old with no more than a high school education increased by 134 deaths per 100,000 people from 1999 to 2014.” In human terms, this translates to tens of thousands of unexpected deaths.


Curiously, these Americans aren’t dying more frequently from major killers such as heart disease or diabetes, but from a rash of suicides, substance abuse complications, and drug overdoses.


Sociology professor Samuel Preston of the University of Pennsylvania is among those scrambling to make sense of the data, calling it “a vivid indication that something is awry in these American households.”


Awry is too tame a word. In the past few months on BreakPoint, we’ve highlighted a growing heroin epidemic and the increase of prescription drug addiction. Add in the rising numbers of suicides and it’s clear that we have a full-blown crisis of despair wrecking families and whole communities across America.


In his 2001 book “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam warned us about the fragmentation of society. "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered,” he wrote, “and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs." These real costs can now be counted in human life.


Friends, as we look around, it’s not hard to see why many people are feeling increasingly hopeless these days. America’s industrial base—and the jobs that go along with it—is vanishing. The natural family is in decline, political agendas are destroying one social institution after another, and we are incessantly bombarded by mindless and nihilistic entertainment.


And yet, I know if Chuck Colson were still with us he’d shout, “What an incredible moment for the Church!” We have something to offer a dying world and despairing hearts that no one else does: Jesus.


It’s not that Christians don’t understand despair. But despair is the time of the cross before the tomb is opened. We, too, would despair if, as the Apostle Paul said, our hope is for this life only.


The power of Christianity in this cultural moment is found in the cross of Jesus. Through the cross of Jesus we see that death and despair do not have the last word. Through His death and resurrection we see the unredeemed from all walks of life who suffer from all manner of wounds and sins, fashioned into a loving family that calls its sons and daughters beloved.


Our opportunity today is to more fully become that which God calls us to be, the Church, the body of Christ on earth who continues to heal the lame, give sight to the blind, and set free those souls held captive to despair. Those trapped in despair aren’t looking for an end to things so much as a home where they are known and loved.


The antidote to despair is hope. People will not find hope in a culture that loudly proclaims how meaningless everything is. But they can find hope in Jesus and in the fellowship of loving believers. Share that hope—and the invitation—with someone today. You never know how much they may need it.



BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.


Publication date: November 24, 2015

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