Deaths of despair

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Deaths of despair

The author is the head of economic policy team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Deaths of despair, which refers to suicides and deaths from drug and alcohol addictions, is a term for a social problem first raised by Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel Prize winner in Economics. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the low-income, low-educated white working class in the United States is alienated from the national community, and they are pushed to the cliff of deaths of despair. A similar phenomenon is occurring in Korea.

According to a research report commissioned by the Presidential Policy Planning Committee by Korea National Open University Professor Kang Sang-jun, published on July 19, Korea has long maintained its rank of having the highest suicide rate among OECD member countries. Suicide is the leading cause of death among teenagers and people in their 20s and 30s. And it is the second leading cause of death among those in their 40s and 50s. They choose to take own lives mainly due to relationship difficulties and economic problems.

Alcohol-related deaths, such as alcoholic liver disease and alcoholic cardiomyopathy, are also becoming more serious. In 2020, there were 5,155 alcohol-related deaths, almost double from 2000. As of 2020, the number of alcoholic patients is estimated to be 1.52 million.

Korea is no longer a “safe zone” when it comes to drug and substance addiction. If the drug crime coefficient — the number of drug offenders per 100,000 people — is over 20, the risk of “drug spread” is high. Last year, the coefficient was 31.2.

In 2011, 32.8 percent of respondents felt positive about their “possibility of moving up in class.” But in 2021, only 26.7 percent felt that way. In 2017, 53.4 percent responded they “feel socially isolated,” but the number increased to 56.6 percent in 2021.

It is especially concerning that the numbers of suicides and alcoholism in the age group spanning teens to people in their 30s continue to rise. Young people are also exposed to drugs and substances due to their active online drug trade. Their problems, a relative sense of depreciation related to employment and home ownership, are similar to the causes of the white American working class’s deaths of despair.

It’s worth listening to the diagnosis by Cha Seung-eun, a professor of children and family welfare at Suwon University. “Resorting to deaths of despair when people should have their most ambitious dreams means that the social conditions for young people are problematic. It will be effective to prepare countermeasures focusing on securing economic and social safety nets for young people who will lead the future.
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