When the Pennsbury School District held a meeting recently to update parents on its novel push to do something inside their schools about a crisis of drugs and despair that has overwhelmed their suburban Bucks County community, crusader Maureen Johnson was not surprised the room was packed with about 200 people — all desperate for answers.
"They see the death notices practically every week," said Johnson, who lost her own son Luke to a heroin overdose last year and who helped push Pennsbury — where her son graduated from high school in 2013 — to launch an innovative drug-intervention-and-awareness campaign.
She said the recent news that a Pennsbury High senior had died from an apparent overdose had sent another round of shockwaves through the community which — centered on the iconic post-World War II ranch houses and cul-de-sacs of Levittown — promised an upwardly mobile American Dream, only to become an epicenter of a modern nightmare.
A Pennsbury school board member who lost one son to heroin and another to suicide, Jacqueline Redner, told the Inquirer last year that her 28-year-old son's overdose had caused her to do some research — and she discovered that about 100 of the 890 young men and women who'd graduated in his class a decade ago had since died, most from drugs or suicide.
The gravest moral crisis facing America in a new millennium isn't the one you're watching on the TV news, the nightly soap opera about a president's twitchy Twitter fingers and politics-as-a-Russian-spy novel. Instead, it's the problem that doesn't even have a name. Or, arguably, it has too many names. Despair. Alienation. Depression. Isolation. Hopelessness.
Last week, the growing problem of suicide took center stage the way that most issues get to center stage in a celebrity-obsessed land with a reality-show commander-in-chief — when two famous people who seemed to have it all, the designer Kate Spade and the chef-turned-world-traveler Anthony Bourdain, took their own lives. As the more public figure, Bourdain's death hit especially hard, causing many to ask how a role model who seemed so full of life could choose to abruptly end it. It's a question that I've certainly asked myself, but there's a much more important one. Why do hundreds of everyday people in the American Heartland make these same grim choices every day.
There's a growing body of evidence that confirms what most of us can feel in our bones. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control said that suicides spiked upwards 25 percent from 1999 through 2016. With 45,000 fatalities last year, suicide is one of only three major causes of death that is rising in the United States. Another is drug overdoses, which rose by more than 21 percent in just one year, 2016 — hardly a surprise to Philadelphia neighborhoods like Kensington that have been overrun by encampments of those laid low by addiction. Coupled with the steady toll of alcohol-related fatalities, sociologists have come up with a grim new term for all this: Deaths of despair.
And it's hard not to wonder about the other forms of fallout in a society where alienation runs inexplicably deep. Are the same factors causing people to kill themselves with handguns, or a needle, also behind the warped mind of mass killers like a 64-year-man who — without any kind of warning or explanation — turned his high-powered weaponry on a Las Vegas music festival and randomly murdered 58 people. Experts admit they're not sure if the same demons behind "deaths of despair" are what motivates mass killers. Indeed, while there's widespread agreement that these deaths are a growing social crisis, you'll find little agreement on what's causing it.
The Princeton researchers who first promulgated the idea of "deaths of despair" did find higher morbidity rates in those economically Rust Belt areas of America where so many factories and coal mines have shuttered (yes, those same regions that voted overwhelmingly for our current president) but even they conceded financial distress is just one piece of the puzzle.
And the other pieces are the kind of numbing 3 a.m. questions that our body politic is not at all equipped to handle. The collapse of clubs, churches, and other community organizations, the phenomenon that sociologist Robert Putnam famously called "bowling alone," The endless hours that we spend staring into a screen instead of interacting with flesh-and-blood humans, included a social network that manages to connect people and make us feel alone at the same time. The inevitable loss of religious faith in a high-tech world. The high rate of divorce and broken families.
All of this, by the way, in a nation where the vultures of Big Pharma have free reign to peddle addictive painkillers as the answer to all of our problems, and where an insidious gun lobby places firearms in the hands of people much more likely to turn a handgun on themselves in despair than on a burglar.
David Radley, chief scientist for the Commonwealth Fund, said there's a growing sense among experts that rising deaths of despair are "attributed to feelings of just hopelessness that aren't necessarily tied to the economy." His group recently noted that such fatalities have spiked more sharply in Pennsylvania — nearly doubling in the last decade — than elsewhere, with rampant opioid addiction the biggest factor. But experts have gotten a better handle on the statistics than on pinpointing the underlying causes, let alone what to do about it.
"I think social media plays a big role," Maureen Johnson told me, noting how the internet has made it easier to buy drugs, or to bully and harass other people. But yet she acknowledges that other factors — including what she thinks was a genetic predisposition to addiction — played a role in the heroin death of her own son Luke, who had been in a Florida drug treatment program. The difficulty of defining the root causes of despair are one reason it's hard to coalesce around a solution — but not the only reason.
Our gridlocked and dysfunctional federal government doesn't help matters. In Washington this past week, a group of GOP lawmakers staged a media event where they held aloft 8-by-10 pictures of their constituents who've succumbed to drug overdoses, but their bills haven't gone anywhere yet, and a more ambitious proposal for an $100-billion war on opioids doesn't have a prayer in an era where the administration is fighting to roll back health care, not improve it. Likewise, studies showing lower suicide rates in jurisdictions that have stricter gun control have done shockingly little to advance the cause of gun control.
But even though stricter laws would make it harder for depressed and suicidal people to get their hands on a gun, that's still addressing a symptom of despair — and not the underlying problem. A D.C.-based non-profit called the Trust for America's Health recently released what it calls a National Resilience Strategy that calls for a systematic, evidence-based assault on rise in deaths of despair, rather than the piecemeal solutions that are debated — and then not passed — on Capitol Hill.
>> READ MORE: Why are so many Americans killing themselves?
But with America's crucial midterm elections on the horizon, I haven't heard many politicians talking about a National Resilience Strategy or "deaths of despair" amid the usual tried-and-true approaches of railing against high gas prices. Said Johnson: "They should be pouring billions into fighting this epidemic" — as she imagined a vast network of community centers that could connect people now fighting despair and addiction alone.
Without a national "War on Despair," Johnson has turned, like many, to smaller bore solutions, raising $20,000 so far for a start-up foundation she hopes will honor her son Luke's memory by promoting greater awareness about the toll from opioids in classrooms, and encouraging Pennsbury to launch the program that now works with the Caron Foundation on its aggressive program that places anti-drug staffers directly in the schools.