Did you see the news? Last week, in the town of Sherman, police arrested three people in connection with a meth lab. It was the 123rd incident of its kind in Maine in 2016. That’s more than double the number last year; in 2015 Maine had 56 meth lab-related incidents.
And then on Friday a Hebron man killed his 27-year-old daughter before taking his own life. Did you see that too?
This is the news today, constant radar blips of “the way life should be.” They are markers an assistant professor at Penn State told me about recently: she calls them “deaths of despair.” And Maine is full of them.
Shannon Monnat is a rural demographer. About a month ago I interviewed her for a story about the heroin epidemic. I came across her research on addiction rates and how they relate to a community’s economic prospects. “Deaths of despair” is the phrase she’s coined for spiking addiction, alcoholism and suicide rates across America.
But rates don’t spike equally. Urban centers are largely spared this crisis. Drug addiction today is a rural problem, and the impact is felt heaviest in the rural communities and small cities that have struggled in the global economy.
Small cities. Rural places. Hmm. Sounds like Maine. Go on…
“These small cities and rural towns have borne the brunt of declines in manufacturing, mining, and related industries and are now struggling with the opiate scourge,” said Monnat. “In these places, good jobs and the dignity of work have been replaced by suffering, hopelessness and despair, the feeling that America isn’t so great anymore, and the belief that people in power don’t care about them or their communities. Here, downward mobility is the new normal.”
Suffering. Hopelessness. Despair. The new normal. 123 meth labs in a year. Murder-suicides. We are watching the effects unfold daily, on the news and in our communities. Each event acts as a radar blip. Misery is a tough pill to swallow, and as a meal to eat every day, it’s poison. But when job prospects seem hopeless it’s easy to sink into despair.
Monnat’s analysis doesn’t end there. Her most recent research looks at the 2016 presidential race, comparing election data with addiction data. And what she found is striking: counties awash in misery, those rural communities and smaller cities plagued by higher addiction rates, came out for Donald Trump.
“Clearly there is an association between drug, alcohol and suicide mortality and Trump’s election performance,” said Monnat, though she cautioned the relationship is a complex one. “What these analyses demonstrate is that community-level well-being played an important role in the 2016 election, particularly in the parts of America far-removed from the world of urban elites, media and foundations.”
“Ultimately, at the core of increasingly common ‘deaths of despair’ is a desire to escape,” she continued, “escape pain, stress, anxiety, shame, and hopelessness. These deaths represent only a tiny fraction of those suffering from substance abuse… Drug and alcohol disorders and suicides are occurring within a larger context of people and places desperate for change. Trump promised change.”
Despair, it seems, has political implications in addition to societal.
This almost shouldn’t be news. Every day we get signals about this despair. Some are small—another drug death, another mill shutdown, another suicide—while others are large, the 2016 election outcome being the most prominent. Sitting in quasi-urban Portland, a small city somehow buoyed by its quaint appeal and its status as a haven for NYC exiles, it might be easy to forget we sit surrounded by misery. But we do. We are a rural and small city state. There is so much misery here that drugs, alcohol, suicide and Donald Trump have become rational choices, the result of living in communities where no other path seems open.
Monnat’s research states America’s problem, and Maine’s problem, succinctly: in “many forgotten parts of the U.S. (often referred to as ‘fly-over’ country by those living on the coasts),” she said, “downward mobility is the new normal.”
Despite our coastline, Maine is one big fly-over state. The evidence to that fact fills our newsfeed.
Maybe it will make tomorrow’s headlines.
This column appeared in this week’s Portland Phoenix.