George Pyle: ‘Deaths by despair’ due to a sick system, not sick people

“Dear Lord, please don’t let me f--- up.”

The Shepard’s Prayer

(Alan Shepard, first American in space, May 5, 1961)

“The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe’s amazing book about the early days of the U.S. space program, is about the pilots who were brave enough to have themselves launched into space atop experimental rockets, every piece of which, in Shepard’s words, was built by the lowest bidder.

Outside the fame of the Mercury 7, American test pilots had been flying experimental aircraft for years, often with disastrous results. Test pilots went to a lot of funerals and, Wolfe wrote, a common, unspoken, thought ran through their minds.

He screwed up.

That pilot, my colleague, my good friend, made a mistake. That has to be the reason he’s dead and I’m alive. And I don’t have to worry that I’ll be the next to die. Because I won’t screw up. Nope. Not me. I’ve got this.

It was bold and brave and a big, fat lie.

Experimental aircraft are risky as all hell. Thousands of parts and systems, not just provided by the low bidder but being invented, well, on the fly. If any one of them failed, the coolest, most error-free pilot wasn’t going to come home safe.

Today, instead of such noble risks as jets that crash or rockets that blow up, we face mass shootings, suicide, homelessness and addiction.

Often we don’t blame the violent, the addicted and the prematurely dead for having messed up. At least, not out loud. We absolve them — and us — of moral failure by explaining that they are mentally ill.

It’s that thing, that demon in their head, that’s making them act up, feel awful and die early. They didn’t ask for that demon to be there, and neither did we. It just happened.

And it won’t happen to me. Nope. Not me. I’ve got this. Sorry about you.

If we want to do more, or seem to do more, than feel sorry, we might speak out about how horrible it is that people who are mentally ill get neither the services they need nor the limits they should have placed on them. We don’t make it easy for them to reach out and get help. We don’t make it hard for them to get their hands on a semi-automatic weapon.

It is all a way to absolve us, individually and as a culture, from the responsibility to build a society where there is not just a safety net, but active efforts by communities, charities and governments to create a path for every person to fulfill themselves.

Sometimes, the problem is mental illness, and a real lack of help for those who suffer from it. Sometimes, it’s a series of really unintelligent, short-sighted decisions on the part of an individual.

Increasingly, though, it is the result of living in a society which just doesn’t care. A system failure which will cause the life of even the most honest, hard-working person to crash and burn.

Scientists now have a name for it, deaths by despair. They count not just suicides but also the increasing rate of early deaths among middle-class white men attributable to alcoholism and drug addiction — mostly, but not only, opioids — even as advances in treating heart disease and cancer should have caused the mortality rate to decline.

The work has been done primarily by two Princeton economists — Anne Case and Angus Deaton — and popularized by Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who spoke on the subject up at the University of Utah a year ago this month.

People who are as sane as you or I — well, as you — are collapsing, turning violent, harming themselves or others — sometimes lots of others — because they are trapped.

Trapped in a society where cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for everyone else is sold as a path to freedom, ignoring the fact that, without help, all but the most wealthy are slaves to their needs and to circumstances beyond their control.

A culture where a strong back and a flawless work ethic gets you another day older and deeper in debt.

Where the education that was a key to success only a generation ago is now available only at the cost of crushing debt, and prepares you for jobs better done by robots.

Feelings of uselessness and hopelessness — not people who, say, hear voices or are pathologically paranoid — are literally killing a generation of Americans. By mass homicide, sudden suicide or slow wasting away.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is not qualified to diagnose mental illness. But he knows enough Shakespeare to recognize madness when he sees it. Email him at gpyle@sltrib.com. Twitter, @debatestate