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Deaths of despair hit home

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It afflicts every group, regardless of education, race, gender, or region.

photo of alan krueger speaking at lectern
Alan Krueger was one of the leading economists of his generation and on Saturday he took his own life.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Suicides, preventable deaths reach record levels.” That was the headline I read in the StarTribune on Tuesday. According to the article, “Suicide is the eighth-leading cause of death in Minnesota, accounting for 783 deaths in 2017.”

Minnesota is not alone in experiencing increased suicides, particularly among men. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, two economists at Princeton University, first pointed out the rising rates of suicides, drug overdoses, and other “deaths of despair” in the United States in a widely cited 2015 article. Their most disturbing figure visualized how mortality from deaths of despair rose among every age group for white, non-Hispanic American men and women.

According to Case and Deaton, the increase in mortality was especially rapid among white, non-Hispanic men between 25 and 54 with a high school education or less.  

I believe this has led social scientists and journalists to think about this phenomenon in a limited and incomplete manner. The emphasis has been on the economic and cultural challenges this demographic group faced: They are high-school graduates, unemployed, often residents of areas hit hard by recession and cultural isolation.  But there is more to this story of depression and death.

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My gut feeling on this matter was heightened by some terrible news from this past weekend.

Alan Krueger was one of Case and Deaton’s colleagues at Princeton. He was one of the leading economists of his generation and on Saturday he took his own life. Krueger’s suicide brings home a painful truth: Deaths of despair are not about others. They are about all of us, about the suffering our friends, family, neighbors and colleagues face, often silently and alone.

I met Alan once, over a drink at the 2007 American Economic Association meetings in Chicago. Paul Shensa, the legendary economics editor at Worth Publishing, was working with Alan on an introductory textbook, and they were looking for a co-author to write the macroeconomics chapters. I noticed immediately that Krueger was handsome, well-dressed, and confident. Paul, Alan, and I spent about 30 minutes together, talking about how this book would be different and what Alan was looking for in a co-author.

We agreed to continue talking and I wrote up drafts of two chapters over the next couple of months. Alan’s comments and suggestions on my drafts were encouraging and helpful, and I was excited to work on the project. However, within a few months I ended up getting an offer to write the macroeconomics chapters for an established textbook. After consulting Paul and others, I took that opportunity instead of working with Krueger.

I’ve often wondered how our relationship would have developed had I continued with the project, so the news of Alan’s suicide hit me hard.

I’ve wrestled with depression and despair throughout my life. It doesn’t matter what the objective facts of your career or your family life are when you are in the grips of this illness. The pain stabs at you, hums in the background, starts dominating your thoughts when it’s especially strong.

Above all, the thoughts are irrational. Others can tell you that it is OK, that things will be all right, but unless the sufferer believes this it doesn’t matter. You just keep hearing the voices, feeling the pain, wondering if it will ever end, wishing there was some way to make it all go away.

The problem of suicide, I’ve concluded, is that it just moves the voices and pain to your friends and family. If you take your own life, they are the ones who will hear your voice and feel the pain created by your absence. Sufferers, when the fog clears a bit, know that they don’t want to put that on their loved ones and so they deal with it all as best they can.  

Mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It afflicts every group, regardless of education, race, gender, or region. There is an epidemic in our midst and it’s not simply due to the decline of the mining industry, the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, or the need to retrain workers to deal with the coming of robots. As a nation, we need to face this and erase the stigmas attached to mental illnesses and open the doors to any and all who need treatment for their conditions.

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Perhaps now is the time to think more deeply about the structure of our society.  Why do so many Americans feel lonely and adrift, without the social and personal support that every human being needs to survive and to thrive? Are there ways to reorganize our economy and our personal lives so that we all can live fully human lives?

In the meantime, if you’re feeling this despair, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, talk to a professional (for example, the Walk-In Counseling Centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t require appointments), or in some other way get some help. You are not alone.

Louis D. Johnston is a professor of economics at College of Saint Benedict | Saint John’s University. He writes Macro, Micro, Minnesota for MinnPost, reporting on economic developments in the news and what those developments mean to Minnesota. 

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