Indicators of despair — depression, suicidal ideation, drug use and alcohol abuse — are rising among Americans in their late 30s and early 40s across most demographic groups, according to new research led by Lauren Gaydosh, assistant professor of Medicine, Health and Society and Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt University. These findings suggest that the increase in “deaths of despair” observed among low-educated middle-aged white Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) in recent studies may begin to impact the youngest members of Generation X (born 1974-1983) more broadly in the years to come.
The study, The Depths of Despair Among U.S. Adults Entering Midlife, appears in the American Journal of Public Health. Gaydosh’s co-authors are Kathleen Mullan Harris, Robert A. Hummer, Taylor W. Hargrove, Carolyn T. Halpern, Jon M. Hussey, Eric A. Whitsel, and Nancy Dole, all at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In 2016, U.S. life expectancy began to decline for the first time in nearly a quarter-century, and researchers theorized that this was driven by a marked increase in deaths due to drug overdose, alcoholic cirrhosis and suicide among middle-aged whites with low education or in rural areas. At the time, this was explained by a unique triple-punch of worsening employment prospects accompanied by a declining perception of socioeconomic status and an erosion of social supports for this group. But studies to better understand those mortality trends did not definitively show that low-income rural whites were actually experiencing more despair than other groups.