Despair: Why It’s There and What Can Help

Warning: This article contains information in reference to suicide and self-harm. If you are sensitive to these topics please read with caution. We also ask that if you or anyone who is suffering with thoughts of self-harm or suicide to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255. This blog is for informational and awareness purposes and was not written by a licensed counselor.

Despair: Why It’s There and What Can Help

By: Katy Egan

What is sadness? We’ve all felt it at one point or another, but sadness is a fleeting emotion. It occurs when we’ve ended a relationship or lost a loved one.  Is ‘sadness’ any different than ‘despair’? How many of us can say we suffer with despair? According to the CDC, we’re suffering from clinical despair now more than ever. 

According to  the CDC prevention data, Jamie Ducharme of the New York Times states that “between 2007 and 2017, drug-related deaths increased by 108% among adults ages 18 to 34, while alcohol-related deaths increased by 69% and suicides increased by 35%… All together, about 36,000 millennials died ‘deaths of despair’ in 2017, with fatal drug overdoses being the biggest driver.” In this article I will be discussing just what it means to be afflicted by despair and why the number of deaths of despair continues to rise despite increasing mental health awareness. 


So… How does someone know they are suffering from despair? Despair, defined by Stephan A. Diamond Ph. D., is typically classified as a symptom of depression or bipolar depression. These diseases attack their victims, leaving the individual to feel as if their suffering is needless. In simpler terms, there is no exact reason why the individual is feeling helpless, hopeless, powerless, and pessimistic about life and the future. Trauma could be the trigger for despair, but despair can continue even after the trauma has ended. Along with these symptoms, an individual experiencing despair will also partake in self-harming activities that can be a vicious circle of physical pain and emotional apathy. This includes, but is not exclusive to the consumption of large amounts of alcohol, drug use, and suicidal tendencies. 


 According to the AM J Public Health Journal, a variety of factors have led to a rapid rise in deaths via despair. However, the causes of despair are just as complex as the definition. Risk factors for despair include: poverty, discrimination, poor education, social exclusion (e.g. disengagement from the labor force or romantic relationships), and dangerous living conditions. All of these, of course, are dependent on each individual’s biology, or predisposition to conditions in which despair appears as a main symptom. 

Based on the Social Capital Project, statistics show that those with a high school diploma or less, who are more likely to live close to or under the poverty line, are more at risk of non-infectious disease related deaths. Since 2000, the rates of deaths of despair have doubled from 22.7 deaths per 100,000 Americans to 45.8 per 100,000 by 2017. But, why? 

Poverty has a high correlation to despair. According to the Census Bureau the poverty line has fallen below 10% until 2020. With that said there are many other factors besides poverty that can increase an individual’s chances of experiencing despair. Climate change for instance has caused extensive trauma for communities around the world. While, it’s true that someone’s biology will play a factor in their susceptibility towards despair, dangerous and/or uncertain living conditions can also leave individuals at risk. Communal trauma can also spread despair.

Despair is a contagious disease. 

 If a community experiences a shared traumatic event, it’s expected that more than one person in said community will exhibit signs of despair. Again this can be brought on by poverty, death in the community, environmental disaster, and weak social bonds. 

Humans are social creatures. When we lack the strong social bonds needed to feel included in a group, it deprives us of the purpose we find while contributing to our group. 

You would think in the age of social media that it would be easier than ever to find a community you belong in, but it seems like the opposite is true. When it comes to social media, sociologists refer to a term “Compare and Despair.” Many of these virtual communities don’t always promote self-love and healthy living, but push each member to force an image of perfection rather than authenticity. At the end of the day, this superficial community can make us feel useless, which then ensues the cycle of hopelessness and helplessness. Of course, there are also individuals who lack a community at all. 

Because of COVID-19, the Well Being Trust projects that there will be most likely 75,000 new American deaths related to drug, alcohol, and suicide between 2020 and 2029. This all depends on how fast the United States can recover from the effects of COVID, with 154,037 new deaths as the worst case scenario. COVID has ravaged communities, those in poverty hit the hardest, and it only continues to push people to their limits of what the human mind can handle. People are suffering, and suffering can spread like a wildfire in a dry forest. The world is currently filled with dangers to our communities and the life lines we need to give ourselves meaning in this world. So… What do we do about it?


There is no one answer to treating despair. It is highly encouraged that those experiencing despair should seek help. There are options like medications, therapies, and communities intended to help. Many psychologists have also found promise in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), especially in cases where the patient is suffering from bipolar depression. Psychotherapist Marsha Linehan, says that DBT “is based on the theory that problems develop from the interaction of biological factors—a person’s physiological makeup—and environmental factors, which together create difficulty managing emotions.” Ultimately, the main goal of DBT is to help the patient find meaning in their life by balancing empathy, acceptance of that which cannot be changed, and a strong enough sense of self to stop problem behaviors before they take over an individual’s life. But, this is a two sided effort. Drug companies and governments need to take responsibility for the ongoing opioid epidemic. There needs to be more education and resources for those struggling with alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicidal tendencies. The solution to despair should not rest on the shoulders of those suffering from it. 

Overall, despair and everything that encompasses it can be scary to face and overcome especially when you yourself are stuck in the midst of it, but there is hope. We have a definition for this and a way to help cope with the feelings that despair may cause within you. My ultimate bit of advice is to seek help from friends, family, and doctors. What is needed most to treat despair is love, support, and a trusted professional that can provide the necessary treatment. You are not alone.

Posted in
Despair: Why It's There and What Can Help