Thursday, March 8, 2018

Suicide and Addiction in a Pretty Nice Place

Depressing story by Juliet Macur in the Times about Madison, Indiana, an ordinary town with a suicide rate 3.2 times the national average:
The unemployment rate here in Jefferson County is around 4 percent, just about the same as it is nationwide, and among those employed residents, about a quarter work in manufacturing. The county is mostly rural, and overwhelmingly white. In Madison, which is marked by three riverfront smokestacks that can be seen for miles, the median household income in 2016 was about $51,500, and two of every 10 children under 18 lived in poverty.

The tourists who travel here see Madison’s antique shops and frequent its art, music, food and boat-racing festivals. But beneath all that are the crises that threaten to drag this town under: suicide, depression, child neglect, abuse and addiction to drugs. 
I see this as the question of our age: why so much hopelessness among young people, even in towns with jobs? Why such a pervasive sense that things are out of whack, that the world is in decline? Why are we so fearful? Why is crazed alarmism such an effective political strategy?

I go back and forth in my own mind, from "things aren't really any worse than they have always been" to "something vital is missing from our society."

Is it too much news, all of it focusing on the bad? Is it an evolutionary misalignment between the hungry village life we evolved for and the mass society and material abundance we have ended up in?

Macur's story focuses on a high school football coach who lost his own brother and is now determined to help kids stay alive. It's easy to be cynical, but if high school sports rivalries won't give small town folks the excitement and sense of community they need, what will?

I don't have any answers, other than a sense that our public culture of outrage, blame, anger, partisan hate, and general woefulness is making things worse.


Unknown said...

I think there's a tendency, in trying to explain phenomena like this, for commentators to blame whatever bothers them about their own experience in our society. Thus my first instinct in reading your question was to think, "too much pressure on students, too much meritocracy"--but that probably tells you more about me than about the suicidal kids of Madison, and spreads more heat than light.

I suspect the real causes are multiple, subtly interrelated, and profound. In addition to social problems like inequality or political conflict, one should consider issues like chemicals (drugs legal and illegal, but also things like microplastics in the water, or whatever), community surveillance or lack thereof, youth social interaction, how behavior gets copied and is spread, etc. (Surely the fact that a behavior becomes a "thing" plays a role--I was struck that Nicholas Cruz wrote online that he was going to become a school shooter, as if that were a thing (which of course it has become). How does that happen? Why does it happen with one behavior and not another at different times? I don't know.)

In these discussions, I always think of the old book Wisconsin Death Trip, which retailed newspaper clippings and photos about suicide, murder, commitment to asylums, etc, in a Wisconsin town of about the 1880s, as I remember. The clippings come with laconic comments like, "The family said the victim had become deranged in the matter of religion," and suchlike. There was a fair amount of that back then.

G. Verloren said...

"I see this as the question of our age: why so much hopelessness among young people, even in towns with jobs?"

Having a job doesn't mean you have a good job, or a secure job. It doesn't mean you aren't being overworked and underpaid, and struggling to feed yourself and others.

Since the recession, we like to talk about how the economy has recovered, and that we've brought back all the jobs that were lost. But the jobs we've replaced them with are overwhelmingly temporary positions with poor to no benefits, and poor to no job security, even if they had the same raw wages or salaries.

Many of these replacement jobs are on unstable schedules that can shift radically from day to day, making it difficult or impossible to maintain a healthy sleep schedule, as you have to work early one day, late the next, then early again the third, and so on. Similarly, many of these jobs also have unreliable total weekly hours, meaning you can be working yourself into the ground doing forty hours plus unpaid overtime all through one week, and then barely work at all the next week, despite desperately needing the hours to make ends meet.

Just because two different people are both A) working and B) bringing in an income of $X annually, doesn't mean the two jobs they work are equivalent. There are so many other variants that need to be factored into the equation. Two jobs can be exactly the same on paper, but one of them is going to slowly kill you and leave you constantly stressed out and at your wits end, while the other is not.