Category Archives: Loneliness

Epidemic of Despair  


When Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who besides being a physician is also a periodic commentator on CNN  first started looking at the deaths in the white middle class that included deaths by opioid overdose, suicide, cirrhosis of the liver, it felt a bit mysterious. He was struck by the numbers but did not really understand the causes. It took some time for him to piece things together.


He found an interesting article with an interesting title. This was “The Epidemic of Despair Among White Americans: Trends in the Leading Causes of Premature Death, 1999-2015” published by Elizabeth Stein, MD. MS, Keith P Gennuso, PhD, […] and Patrick Remington, MD MPH in the medical journal American Journal of Public Health. An epidemic of despair? That is very strong language? Is it justified? Gupta wanted to know. So did I.

Dr. Gupta wanted to know, ‘what causes those deaths of despair?’ That is an important question. He was not satisfied with the medical causes of death. He wanted to know ‘the cause of the cause.’ He, like me, thought that was a much more significant question. But this one is harder to tackle.

Why are people taking so many opioids?  Why are they becoming addicted? Part of it is overprescribing for which physicians are responsible. Why are so many people drinking to excess? Why are so many people dying of suicide. Is there a common cause of the cause?

As Neurosurgery Resident Kumar Vasudevan put it, “We are living in a time in which we are very, very good at treating diseases, we are less good and less proficient at understanding health.”  I would add, that many of us are reluctant to look at social causes, and, believe it or not, political causes. Is that possible?

As Dr. Gupta said, “deaths of despair seem to be a symptom of an underlying problem, rather than the problem itself.” Cyril Wecht believes that the underlying problem is that American society is increasingly stressed. Pressures make lives more and more difficult. Pressures of making a living, depersonalization, families breaking up, and what he calls the “robotization of society.”

But there were also things that happened on the side of medicine. The idea began to flourish that people should not have to suffer. If they suffer that was seen as a failure of medicine. There always seem to be simple solutions–write a prescription. Drugs can take care of any problem. But simple solutions are often the most dangerous. And prescriptions were one of them.

Of course there is more to it than this. Let’s look farther.

A Uniquely Stupid Decade


A few years after he appeared on the Bill Maher show which I posted about yesterday, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, showed up on Amanpour and Co. expanding on his ideas about moral mistakes of the past. He was again explaining how social media was a problem but as always he did so in a very nuanced fashion and based his comments on scientific data. He is not free range pundits spouting off without restraint. Now don’t make nasty suggestions about me.


Haidt spoke with Hari Sreenivasan about the corrosive effects of new technology and how they have transformed the face of society, how they could be improved, and how drastically they have affected young people in North America. They talked a lot about an article he had written in the Atlantic with the engaging title “Why the Past Ten Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” It actually sums up nicely a lot of his thinking. He is actually working on book on the subject that I am looking forward to reading.


Haidt has been researching what social media is doing to the minds of children, the behaviors of children, and how maybe that contributes to the larger issues he is thinking about. He wants to go beyond the effects of new technology, and consider the effects on society. His research has showed how kids were the canaries in the coal mine and the ill effects they suffered were also suffered by adults later on. He says social media helped to make the decade from 2010 to 2020 a stupid one. Sreenivasan called it “stupefaction.”


This is how Haidt summed it up on Amanpour & Co. on American PBS in 2022:


“…something changed, something fundamentally changed in the nature of this social universe, in the early 2010s. And everything got weird and kind of stupid after that. And we see it clearly — most clearly with that the kids. All kids have been on screens all the time. When I was a kid, when you were a kid, we watched too much television. We couldn’t take the television with us to school or into the bedroom, and something changed when kids got smartphones. And it’s not just the phone, it’s especially social media. The girls went right for the digital platforms. Instagram and Tumblr. The boys went more for YouTube and video games. And at the time, people said, well, you know, maybe this is good for them to have so much stimulation. But actually, what happened, beginning in 2012, was that rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide all began going up. I mean, it wasn’t a gradual thing, it was like they were sort of stable until 2012 and then, it’s like a hockey stick. They’re now — most of them are 100 percent higher, we kind of doubled it, of the rates of suicide, self-harm, depression and anxiety. So, that has really drawn me in because this, I think, was a national emergency. One that is tractable. And I’ve been studying this in depth to try to figure out what is the evidence that social media actually is a contributor, and there is a fair amount now.”


Haidt is sensitive to the fact that many people will shout out that analysts like him and others have cried wolf in the past about the evil nature of modern technology. As he said.


“…there’s a long history of moral panic, especially around technology. And I’ve been engaging with other psychologists who say I’m fomenting a moral panic. And they’re right to be concerned about that because most of the previous times we freaked out about technology, it hasn’t been actually anything. This time, we believe is different for a couple of reasons. The first is that there’s never been a hockey stick graph, like that that sudden upturn in mental health problems. So, this time, it’s different. Two is that the timing is exactly what you would expect for social media. It’s not a gradual thing. It’s not like something changed and then something else kind of changed. As soon as most kids get on social media and right then, the next very year, rates of depression and anxiety start going up. And then, a final kind of data is, the kids themselves say it. I mean, when we were growing up, we didn’t say, yes, you know, television is making us crazy. Mom and dad, you know, do something. But if you talk to the kids,  about Facebook, Instagram, they talk to the kids and guess what, they say, yes, Instagram is what’s making us depressed and anxious.”


I have been trying to show that there is some serious rot in western society. Not that it is all bad. But there sure is some bad stuff around. Any society that allows it is to some extent in serious decline even though there are many good aspects  to it to. I will continue on the this in my next post.


Social Connections


A lot people believe if they just have a little more money all will be well. Even extremely wealthy people tend to believe this. They all think they need a little bit more.

These people don’t realize that what makes people happy (as long as they have a basic minimum of money and resources) is genuine social connections.  This is what provides fulfilling lives, not more money. Most of us have plenty of money (except me, I need a lot more of course). Many of us have insufficient social connections, or at least insufficient quality of social connections. We should work on improving the quality of our social connections, less on earning more money. Those who have these are the lucky people. Not the wealthy people.