Guest editorial: College sees firsthand the impact of ‘deaths of despair’


Premature deaths produce an intense, unyielding force of overwhelming sadness. This is where we find ourselves at Middlebury College. Between Sept. 19 and Nov. 7, 2023, a span of only 49 days, the community mourned the passing of two students, Evelyn Mae Sorensen ’25 and Ivan Valerio ’26. Just two years earlier, the community lost Yan Zhou ’23. 

Søren Kierkegaard labeled the visceral sense of mortality we get after experiencing grief “despair.” When we encounter firsthand that things in life are not eternal and nothing is forever, we appreciate how we passionately long for things to be eternal. Kierkegaard is our guide into “deaths of despair,” as defined by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, who set out to understand what accounted for falling U.S. life expectancies. 

They learned that the fastest rising death rates among Americans were from drug overdoses, suicide and alcoholic liver disease — despair. Deaths from these causes have increased between 56% and 387%, depending on the age cohort, over the past two decades, averaging 70,000 per year. According to the CDC, youth and young adults ages 10–24 years account for 15% of all suicides. The suicide rate for this age group (11.0 per 100,000) is lower than other age groups. However, suicide is the second leading cause of death for this age group, accounting for 7,126 deaths. Additionally, suicide rates for this age group increased 52.2% between 2000 and 2021.

Prevention, and trying to understand who among our students may be vulnerable — and why — has beset higher education. A 2021 survey by Boston University’s School of Public Health of 1,685 faculty members at 12 colleges and universities across the United States, found that faculty are increasingly involved in responding to student mental health concerns. 

Many faculty members have observed their students’ mental health worsening over the years, particularly post COVID. The BU survey indicates that a majority of faculty members would welcome more training in how to support students experiencing mental health issues, and believe that this training should be mandatory. Faculty feel a responsibility to help students dealing with mental health concerns, which stands in contrast to a long-held assumption that faculty do not see this as “their job.”

In my Fall courses, “Writing to Heal” and “The Rhetorics of Death,” we gaze out classroom windows looking for respite in the gray chill, and are overwhelmed by the horrors in Israel and Gaza, the slow, deliberate and reasonless carnage in Ukraine, and the devastating invisibility experienced by forgotten Afghans suffering unimaginably in the diaspora, and in Afghanistan. There is no equilibrium, so we laboriously search for it only to find that the devastating sadness of our time is beyond words. 

I think we’re all feeling the same, that these are the saddest of times; we can’t find the right language to describe what we see and feel. Deaths of despair conflate with unbearable madness and produce the silence of despair in the anguish that results from invisibility. As well-meaning and truly honest are human efforts to afford a community closure, in the race to achieve and excel, the struggle to become, some are rendered invisible, which psychologically means inconsequential. Alienation and anguish follow.

Martin Heidegger argued that the presence of death in our lives gives fresh meaning to our being free to choose. “Being present,” he wrote, “is grounded in the turning-towards [death]” —  that is, keeping death close to make the current moment sweeter. Pressured by an intense curriculum, the need to achieve, to make it, climbing the unforgiving rungs of imagined success, carpe diem — seize the day — becomes a fixation, a way through. Study hard, play hard. Case and Deaton argue that “deaths of despair” could be a new characteristic of evolution: those that can handle stress survive. The level of stress misery brings is a form of nihilism that, for Heidegger, arises when individuals become alienated from their authentic existence. 

In his later works, particularly in “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), Heidegger addresses the impact of modern technology on human existence. He argues that a technological mindset, which views everything as a resource to be exploited, contributes to a form of nihilism by reducing the world to mere standing reserve (a resource to be used) and diminishing its inherent meaning. Deaths of despair follow; a life without meaning is bound to extinguish.

For Albert Camus, who wrote his masterful “first cycle” of works dealing with the absurd and the meaningless — “The Stranger” (1942), which we read in “The Rhetorics of Death” course; the philosophical essay “Le Mythe de Sisyphe;” and the play “Caligula” — grief is a state of being overcome by the pointlessness of it all. Why love if love ends in such pain? Why build great projects when all will be dust? With grief comes an awareness of the bitter finality of everything, and it comes with an angry, screaming frustration: Why are we here at all? In “The Stranger”(1942) and “The Plague” (1947), characters grapple with the challenges of existence and the human condition — facing loss, death, or absurd situations, which prompt us to consider the human response to suffering and the search for meaning. Existential struggle and the human response to the apparent meaninglessness of life is another characteristic of deaths of despair. 

It’s difficult to deliberate over such essential questions and ideas when the University in its struggle for relevancy has become corporatized and whose “functions (products?),” says Bill Readings in “The University in Ruins” (1996), “is a granting of degrees with a cultural cache, but whose overall nature is corporate rather than cultural.” Thus, “The University becomes no longer a model of the ideal society but rather a place where the impossibility of such models can be thought — practically thought, rather than thought under ideal conditions.”

The University is unable to participate in its legacy from the Enlightenment, the historical project of culture, and is enthralled by its embrace of “excellence” rather than “culture,” and what gets taught or produced as knowledge matters less. Instead, we strive for “ideological excellence,” since excellence is precisely non-ideological. Consequently, Bill Readings argues, we become obsessed with ruins. 

The corporate University is complicit in the creation of invisibility, destabilizing culture and making ruins of us all. In “The Conduct of Life” (1860), Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that, “You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughter-house is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.” Or as Don DeLillo would say, everything in the end is connected. Chris Hedges, who is never seen in popular media, but should be, in the “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” (2009), says that, “The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite … They focus … on creating hordes of component systems managers.” In this system students go unnoticed, unseen, and suffering must be tolerated. Deaths of stress and despair follow — there is complicity.

Hector J. Vila is an associate professor in Writing & Rhetoric and a mentor for Posse program students at Middlebury College.

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