“Deaths of Despair” and Social Isolation

I used to write a blog post after most mass shootings, but I stopped that practice some time ago when, tragically, they started to become so regularized. How many times can you bemoan the ease of obtaining a gun, the ignoring of warning signs, increasing violence and the normalization of these shootings? I felt at a loss for new words to say, new arguments to make.

However, when I read this New York Times article: [https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2023/01/26/opinion/us-mass-shootings-despair.html?campaign_id=39&emc=edit_ty_20230126&instance_id=83691&nl=opinion-today&regi_id=60300063&segment_id=123548&te=1&user_id=9a36fc5cd8849e98271ae73896ba1277], examining 50 years of mass shootings and profiling the perpetrators, I was struck by the angle they took and the insights they found. Interspersed with description after description of these men and the manifestations of their pathologies, this is the argument of the opinion piece.

“This is no coincidence. The killings are not just random acts of violence but rather a symptom of a deeper societal problem: the continued rise of ‘deaths of despair’. This term has been used to explain increasing mortality rates among predominantly middle-aged white men caused by suicide, drug overdose and alcohol abuse. We think the concept of ‘deaths of despair’ also helps explain the accelerating frequency of mass shootings in this country.

Nearly all the killers we profile are men. Many were socially isolated from their families or their communities and felt a sense of alienation. Many of these men felt that their identities were under attack. Often, they turned to extreme ideologies to cope with their failures and to find a sense of purpose.

Most chose not to ask for help when confronted with hardship, like a breakup or being fired from their job. They chose mass shootings as a way to seize power and attention, forcing others to witness their pain while attempting to end their lives in a way that only they controlled. These are public spectacles of violence intended as final acts.

Mass shooters are not the victims. But in order to prevent future tragedies we must treat the underlying pathologies that feed the shooters’ despair. Mass shootings must no longer be written off as ‘inexplicable’ episodes of ‘unthinkable’ violence. Our communities and governments need to find ways to reduce social isolation more broadly and improve access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment.

We say ‘never again’ and yet less than 48 hours elapsed between the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, Calif. ‘Again’ keeps happening because mass shooters are not monsters who appear out of thin air.

Mass shooters live among us. They are us. They are for the most part the men and boys we know. And they can be stopped before they pull the trigger.”

As a Christian, and a seminary leader, what struck me in this piece is the language about isolation and despair; and the need, then, for more community support, a stronger sense of belonging. In Christian language, I would name this as being welcomed into the body of Christ, being seen and valued just as you are, and being part of a body where every member is important, and where each member both helps and is helped by the others.

At their best, Christian communities provide this sense of belonging and welcome; and some of the most dynamic and innovative ministries I am hearing about these days are finding ways to reach out and invite even the most vulnerable into Christ’s body—without having to change or clean up first, without having to be perfect or have it all together.

I continue to believe strongly in the role the church [broadly and creatively understood] can play in our local, regional and national contexts, bringing people together across differences, and providing a home for those who desperately need a chosen family and a network of support. Christians are perfectly suited to embody this kind of outreach, because of our grounding in the one who himself embodied unconditional welcome and acceptance to the last and the least, the marginalized and forgotten. We who ourselves have been adopted into Christ’s family are called to reach out and invite others to the table, to the house, to the body.

Christ lived and died on the cross so that no one would ever die—or live—alone; his promise of an enduring, loving, steadfast presence holds in all situations, with each one of us. As Christians, we are empowered and called to continue to embody that promise to those around us today. In that way, we can work toward a society where  a “death of despair” no longer feels like the only option.

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