Pain in the Nation: It’s Time to Turn to One Another

By Tyler Norris 

More than 1 million Americans died in the last 10 years from alcohol, drugs and suicide. If these trends continue, the death rate could grow to claim 1.6 million more lives by 2025. That’s equivalent to about nine full school buses going over a cliff. Every. Single. Day.

Pain in the Nation, released today by Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust, reports on this triple-crisis facing our nation, rooted in great part in loneliness, hopelessness, and despair. In the coming months, our foundation will take up the call for a National Resilience Strategy, complete with the policy and practice changes and the investments that are needed to stem the loss and foster a culture of well-being for all. 

But as we enter this Thanksgiving week, there is something we can all do about it now: turn to one another. In this, I invite your partnership, by asking you to have a conversation of significance with someone important to you, on these very issues, and on what matters to them. And while protecting confidentiality, share your experience of reaching out via #BeWell. Each of us is on the front line and can be a lifeline.

When we talk about figures like 1 million people dead, we need to start by moving the data point from our head to our heart – as these are not nameless, faceless statistics. Every one of these deaths is a daughter, a son, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a partner, a coworker, a soldier, a colleague, a boss, a member of our church or synagogue or mosque, a friend, a neighbor. Someone with a life once full of hope and promise, cut too short, too soon, by a death of despair. Every one of us knows someone affected. Some of us are the ones affected.

Alcohol, drugs, and suicide touch all of us. For me, a sister courageously over a decade in her recovery, an uncle who took his life and left my cousins with no father, a close friend who self-medicated her depression and anxiety to death. Urban, rural, red, blue, rich, poor, coastal, heartland – deaths of despair make no distinctions. 

In the face of so much suffering and pain in our nation, undercutting all we value as a people, we can and must do something to change the trajectory. Pain in the Nation issues a clarion call to action and highlights the policies and practice changes that are showing promise in communities across the country. It gives us all the necessary evidence to advocate for the expansion of such initiatives in other communities. Importantly, it calls for a desperately-needed National Resilience Strategy – a comprehensive multi-sector approach to promoting positive mental health and well-being for all Americans. A commitment to life that can address the complex conditions and underlying factors that lead to death by alcohol, drugs, and suicide.

I’ve spent decades talking to, learning from, and helping build healthy community approaches in cities and towns all across this great country. I’ve seen what is merely tinkering, blaming and finger-pointing (often at those who are suffering), and politically-expedient window-dressing. I have also seen what works: comprehensive, community-based approaches, driven by local leaders who, often working across sectors and political perspectives to find common ground, are saving lives. 
In the coming months, Well Being Trust, joining arms with many others, will be advancing a comprehensive National Resilience Strategy, with policy, practice, and investment strategies that foster a culture of well-being for all. But underlying all of this needed systems-change work is each of us showing up for each other as human beings. 

This week, as we enter this season of closeness, joy, and gratitude for Thanksgiving, remember that for some (including many of us) this can also be a time of loneliness, sadness, and loss. Far too often, this translates to reaching to our addictions or worse. So instead, let us reach out by turning to one another. Perhaps to someone you know who struggles, or is alone, or is prone. With compassion and kindness, take a small risk and cross the living room, deepen the conversation, make the phone call. We can be there for each other. Maybe someone will take that risk and be there for you, or someone you love.

We each have a role in helping turn the tide for the people in our own lives and communities. Let us not wait! Offering our compassion, kindness, and social support is not touchy-feely nonsense. We all know how good it feels when someone we care about “shows up” for us. And how good it feels to “show up” for another. Not surprisingly, the research is clear that supportive relationships that “create love and trust [and] offer encouragement and reassurance help bolster a person’s resilience.” With support from others, we can build our ability to recover from trauma and hardship, make healthier choices, and move our lives forward in a positive way. 

So initiate a conversation with __________. (You know exactly who that is for you!) Someone who needs to hear your caring voice and feel your open heart today. Invite the new young family in your neighborhood or place of worship to Thanksgiving dinner. Bring some extra pumpkin pie to an elderly neighbor. Use little opportunities that arise to open up a real conversation. Talk about what matters. Ask questions of significance. Really listen. Acknowledge people’s pain. Acknowledge your own pain. Assure others that they are not alone and that you are there for them. And then be there for them. Know too, that you are not alone.

It’s my privilege to lead an organization dedicated to improving mental health and well-being for all residents of this country. Engaging in real conversations with the people in our lives is what we all can and must do this week, this month, and beyond. I’m starting with my two kids, now young adults, who now live across the nation from me, but with whom I get to have the coming days. 

Well Being Trust is at the front lines of addressing this epidemic. Join us. Share your story and learn from others via #BeWell #BeHeard. Together, we can establish a culture of caring and well-being from the ground up, even as we advocate for the systemic investments and policy changes needed to advance positive mental and social health of our nation. We can and must do both.

Tyler Norris, MDiv, is CEO, Well Being Trust