White Americans are more likely than blacks and Hispanics in the United States to experience “deaths of despair,” although they are less likely to suffer serious psychological disorders, a new study finds.
The results suggest that, for some reason, whites are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of psychological distress than blacks or Hispanics, he said. .
Zheng said the study provides direct evidence of despair as a determinant of death and assesses how it may vary over time and by race and ethnicity.
Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton first wrote about “deaths of despair” in a 2015 PNAS paper. They argued that desperation had led to a rise in drug-, alcohol-, and suicide-related deaths, particularly among less educated white Americans.
In this new study, Zheng and Choi reevaluated this narrative of deaths of despair, using data from a variety of sources, including the US National Health Interview Survey Linked Mortality File, the deaths database due to multiple causes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC Bridge Breed Database. population files, the Current Population Survey, and the American Community Survey.
Their final sample included 409,095 people. The researchers used “psychological distress” as a way to measure despair. In one of the data sets, respondents reported how often during the previous 30 days they felt sad, nervous, restless, hopeless, or that everything was an effort. Based on their responses, participants were categorized into three groups, the highest being those who were severely distressed.
The researchers examined deaths between 1997 and 2014.
The findings showed that the percentage of white Americans experiencing moderate or severe psychological distress showed a steady increase over the time studied. The increase was greatest among whites without a college degree, which increased from 12.5% to 14.9%.
Trends in levels of psychological distress for blacks and Hispanics varied over the period, but Zheng noted that whites had a lower prevalence than the other groups throughout the period studied.
This study can’t say why levels of despair increased among whites, but others have pointed to the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs, a perceived relative loss of status, lower religious participation and a decline in marriage, Zheng said.
What became clear in this study was that the impact of psychological distress was most severe in white Americans.
For example, in 1997-2002, a model showed that severe distress was associated with a 114% increase in mortality among whites, but only a 44% and 51% increase among blacks and Hispanics, respectively.
“The problem is that white Americans seem more vulnerable to despair: they are more likely to die from it,” Zheng said.
Other researchers have speculated that black and Hispanic Americans may be protected from the worst effects of psychological distress through higher levels of religiosity and stronger social support.
“These protective factors may mitigate the impact of despair in blacks and Hispanics,” he said.
This study yielded another important finding that may revise Case and Deaton’s original conclusions. The deaths of despair narrative generally assumes that despair primarily leads to drug-, alcohol-, and suicide-related deaths.
But Zheng and Choi found that in 1997, deaths from alcohol, drugs and suicide only accounted for about half of the total deaths among black and white Americans that could be related to psychological problems.
“Just looking at deaths due to drugs, alcohol and suicide underestimates the toll that despair takes on blacks and whites in the United States,” Zheng said.
“Psychological distress can lead to other health problems related to mortality. “It leads to stress, obesity, lack of sleep, unhealthy eating habits, and other habits that contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.”
On the other hand, focusing on mortality related to drugs, alcohol and suicide overestimates the impact of despair on mortality among Hispanics, the study found.
This suggests that desperation may not be the only reason for drug, alcohol and suicide deaths, he said.
Overall, the findings suggest that despair may be one of the factors driving the trend of alcohol-, drug- and suicide-related deaths among whites, but not among blacks and Hispanics.
“We need more research to identify the underlying factors that create these different trends in susceptibility to despair across racial and ethnic groups,” Zheng said.
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