In short, drug- and alcohol-related problems have caused increasing rates of early death among America’s white middle class between 1999 and 2013, and researchers are working hard to understand why.
Anne Case was an author on the study. She said:
We sort of fell off our chairs when we saw that in the data, because that’s just not what’s happening elsewhere.
Though the study did not provide an in-depth exploration of what was underlying the increased use of drugs and alcohol in this age group, some contributing factors may have been identified, including:
- Increased reporting of psychological distress
- Increased reporting of physical pain
- Higher rates of alcohol poisoning
- Increased availability of prescription painkillers (e.g., oxycodone, hydrocodone)
It is significant that the researchers also found that death rates among black and Hispanic Americans declined during the same period. Additionally, researchers found that white, middle-class Americans with a high school degree or less experienced the greatest increase in death rates: up as much as 22 percent during the 15-year study.
Aaron White is the senior scientific advisor to the director of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). He said that the results of the study were “very alarming” and said: “Now there are more people 45 to 54 dying from alcohol and drug poisonings than from lung cancer.”
Stress and Substance Abuse
There are likely a number of issues driving the increased rates of substance abuse among white Americans. Some suggest that the changing definition of the “American dream” may be among those issues. For example, it was once thought that you could simply work an entry-level job and that hard work and persistence would eventually yield a pay off: promotions, raises, home ownership, increasingly nicer cars and clothes, and college tuition for kids. Unfortunately, many families have not found that to be the case. Instead of looking forward to retirement, these families are instead unsure when or if they will be able to stop working.
Another issue that commonly plagues this age group is divorce and its aftermath. A hugely stressful undertaking, it can cause tough emotional and financial consequences that ripple through the following decade, if not longer. Strained relationships with children and the ex, and losing half – or more – of what one has worked for are difficult. Many also find themselves unexpectedly back on the dating scene, often defined by bars and clubs where alcohol and drug use is prevalent.
If substance abuse or addiction was an issue prior to the development of financial strain or divorce, use of drugs and alcohol may increase significantly as stressors rise, which in turn can lead to addiction as well as serious – and even deadly – health problems caused by chronic substance abuse.