Deaths of despair is a term that has recently been used to describe the increases in premature mortality from suicides, drug overdoses (particularly from opiates), and alcohol-related liver disease among US adults. Despite the use of the term despair, its role in these causes of premature death has not been empirically tested.
To test whether despair among young adults is associated with suicidal thoughts and behavior, alcohol misuse, and drug misuse.
DESIGN, SETTING, AND PARTICIPANTS
The Great Smoky Mountains Study is a Southeastern, mixed urban-rural population-based cohort study conducted from November 10, 1992, to September 22, 2015. A total of 1420 participants originally 9, 11, and 13 years of age were followed up 11 times to 30 years of age (11230 person-observations). A total of 1154 of 1400 living participants (82.4%) were assessed at 30 years of age. Statistical analysis was performed from May 7, 2019, to April 10, 2020.
Participants were assessed with structured interviews for indicators of despair (eg, hopelessness, helplessness, low self-worth, and feeling unloved). Despair was assessed with items from structured interviews: the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Assessment and the Young Adult Psychiatric Assessment.
MAIN OUTCOMES AND MEASURES
Structured interviews were used to assess suicidal thoughts and behavior, substance use, and Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) alcohol use disorder and drug use disorder (including opioids) in young adulthood (2424 observations of 1266 individuals between 25 and 30 years of age).
This study included 1420 individuals (790 male individuals). During young adulthood (25 and 30 years of age), the 3-month weighted prevalence of any despair was 19.5% (476 of 2424 observations) with 7.6% of participants (201 of 2424 observations) reporting 2 or more despair items. In longitudinal, lagged models, despair scores (range, 0-3) were associated with more suicidal thoughts and behaviors (odds ratio [OR], 1.5; 95% CI,1.1-2.0), illicit drug use (OR,1.7;95%CI,1.2-2.5), and opioid use (OR, 1.9; 95% CI, 1.1-3.3)but not alcohol use disorder (OR, 0.8; 95% CI, 0.6-1.2). These associations persisted after accounting for socio demographic factors (eg, poverty and educational level), lagged outcome status, and lagged depression status. The associations between despair and study outcomes were stronger in models accounting for long-term measures of despair extending back to childhood. There was no consistent pattern of moderation by sociodemographic factors.
CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE
This study’s findings suggest an empirical basis for longitudinal associations between despair and several, but not all, precursors of “deaths of despair” in rural Appalachia. Individual despair should be studied as a potential factor associated with morbidity and impairment in young adulthood.