‘Deaths of Despair’ rising in Virginia

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Virginia’s white population is under siege. From immigration? No, from drug overdoses. A report from Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health finds an alarming rise in deaths among Virginia’s white population, ages 25-54.

The study found that while overall death rates in Virginia’s white population decreased by 16% between 1995 and 2014, death rates from 20 specific causes increased dramatically, especially among those ages 25–54 years.

More than half (55%) of these excess deaths were due to unintentional drug overdoses, suicides, and
alcoholic liver disease, what some have called “deaths of despair.” In Virginia, the rate of such deaths increased by 83% between 1995 and 2014, claiming almost 2,300 lives in so-called “excess deaths,” two-thirds of them caused by unintentional drug overdoses.

VCU Graphic

The same phenomenon has been noted around the country and is seen as responsible for a decline in life expectancy in the U.S. It comes as something of a surprise to many, however, to find it in Virginia, a state where whites have historically been the dominant societal group and where minority group members have been more likely to die prematurely from drugs, alcohol and other stress-related conditions.

“Middle-class white households were largely protected from the social disadvantage and economic insecurity that are common today, and that people of color have experienced for generations,” the report noted.
Denis Nissim-Sabat, a retired clinical psychologist and University of Mary Washington professor, says these types of deaths long have been prevalent in communities of color.

“My concern is, and others have said this, is we’re now paying attention when it hits whites,” he said in a Richmond Times-Dispatch report. When African-Americans used drugs, “it wasn’t seen as a health issue, it was seen as a criminal issue,” he said.

“The opioid crisis is the tip of an iceberg,” according to the report. “Many people are dying from the use of other drugs, alcohol abuse, the injuries and diseases they cause, and suicides. The root causes that are driving people to their deaths must be addressed.”


About the Author

Truman Lewis
A former reporter and bureau chief, Truman Lewis has covered presidential campaigns, state politics and stories ranging from organized crime to environmental and consumer protection.