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Suicides, Overdoses, and Economic Anxiety: Key Metrics Signal an Undercurrent of Despair on the North Coast

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A once-thriviing homeless encampment that grew out of the industrial area along Ukiah’s Brush Street [Picture by Matt LaFever]

With talk of inflation and shortages and gas prices, the nation is in the grips of economic anxiety, fearing the fair deal and honest work of the American Dream is beyond their grasp.

The Golden State, despite its overflowing state coffers, has the highest number of impoverished residents in the nation. The Public Policy Institute of California found in July 2021 that 1 in 6 Californians were not “in poverty but lived fairly close to the poverty line.” Combined with those in poverty, 34% of the state is “poor or near poor.”

Stacker Media, a newsroom that practices data journalism, crunched the numbers and determined the 25 lowest earning counties in California. Its findings hit alarmingly close to home

  • Trinity County, the eastern vertex of the Emerald Triangle, is the lowest-earning county in the state. 
  • Humboldt County, the northwestern corner of the Emerald Triangle, replete with a college town infused with out-of-area cash, ranks the fifth lowest earning county in California.
  • Lake County, a landscape dominated by volcanic hillsides and dead dreams of a would-be resort destination, ranks sixth in the state for the lowest earnings.
  • Del Norte County, home to California’s only supermax prison–Pelican Bay-is the seventh lowest earning county in California.
  • Just outside of the top ten lowest earning counties in the Golden State is Mendocino County, which stands as the thirteenth lowest earning county in the state
The brooding Mendocino County coastline. This is Cananaugh Cove as seen from Highway 1 north of Elk [Photograph by Eric Lee Burch]

The National Preparedness Center’s Argonne National Laboratory sought to identify how local economies fared in the wake of the COVID-19 disruption. They developed the County Economic Impact Index which “estimates the change in overall county-level activity during the COVID-19 pandemic relative to January 2020.” This data point “provides the ability to monitor trends over time of the economic health of counties in the United States.”

They found the counties that earn the least (Trinity, Humboldt, Del Norte, and Lake) fared better than Mendocino County and its considerably more affluent counties to the south including Sonoma, Marin, and the Bay Area counties in general. 

So, counties with lower rates of household income proved more economically resilient to the disruptions of COVID-19.

What about the poverty rate? This commonly cited metric measures the percentage of people that live below the federally designated poverty line. The US Census Bureau tells us 18.5% of Del Notre’s residents are in poverty. Trinity’s stands at 18%. Humboldt and Lake Counties are very similar–standing at 15.8% and 15.9% respectively. The outlier is Mendocino County at 14.3%, the least impoverished county on the North Coast.

Every North Coast county has a higher poverty rate than California’s as a whole which stands at 11.5% just a tad higher than the overall United States poverty rate which stands at 11.4%.

True to the times, when considering the economic strain of a community, gas prices can indicate the struggles of the average joe. In a review of AAA’s map of California’s average gas prices, the most expensive average gas price on the North Coast is currently in Humboldt  County–averaging $6.78/gallon followed closely by Del Norte at $6.73/gallon. Trinity County’s average gallon stands at $6.53 about ten cents more than Mendocino’s average at $6.42

Gas pumps in Hopland along Highway 101, reminding commuters of their exponentially rising gasoline prices [Picture by Matt LaFever]

Other than counties of California’s rural east, a smattering in the Bay Area, and a few on the Southern California Coast, California’s northern reaches have higher gas prices than the rest of the state. The economic consequence of this price rise is exacerbated by low household incomes and a high poverty rate. The counties with the lowest wages and highest poverty rates in the state are paying the highest prices in the nation at the pump.

What about other metrics? Aren’t there other ways to measure the overall quality of life outside of economics? 

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation teamed up with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute for a nationwide, county-by-county ranking of the health outcomes. Out of 58 counties in California, Trinity stands as the least healthy county in the state followed closely by Lake County, the 56th least healthy. Del Norte sits in the bottom eight as the 51st least healthy county in the Golden State. Mendocino County is next at 44th followed by Humboldt at 39th. So much for the rural, rugged outdoor lifestyle to keep us in shape.

Once productive railroads now sit unused in Mendocino County [Picture taken by Eric Lee Burch at Dos Rios in 2009]

The middle class of the North Coast has been at the whims of multiple boom and bust cycles over the last few generations. The logging industry, once a steady source of working-class jobs, is a ghost of what it once was. The railroads stopped running, ending mass transit of goods. The cannabis industry was once a means of economic mobility. Cannabis farmers spent locally, a means of bringing more taxes to the local coffers. But now, in the wake of legalization, taxation, and a byzantine bureaucracy, many cannabis growers that filled the region’s sales tax coffers are heading to greener pastures. 

The region’s economic turmoil might point toward an underlying sense of hopelessness contributing to the negative health outcomes documented by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Researchers and policymakers have identified an alarming trend they are calling “deaths of despair” brought about by the hopelessness of economic insecurity and correlated conditions. These behavior-related conditions common to “deaths of despair include obesity, suicide, alcoholism, and overdoses.”

On the North Coast, there are indicators that a toxic brew of economic desperation and resulting feelings of hopelessness are leading to a rise in mortality and what researchers would call “deaths of despair.”

Using data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, when it comes to obesity, the Central Valley makes up essentially the bottom eight California counties. The first North Coast county to make an appearance is Del Notre sitting at 49th place. Lake County is the 46th most obese in the state, Mendocino is the 36th, Trinity is the 31st, and Humboldt is the 19th most obese county.

Let’s Get Healthy California surveyed the suicide rate between 2017-2019 in California and shows that Trinity County, along with its lowest earnings and worst health outcomes, has the most cases of suicide per 100,000 residents. Lake County has the second highest rate. Humboldt County has the 9th highest and Mendocino County has the 10th highest suicide rate in the state.

The California Overdose Surveillance Dashboard indicates Lake County has the third highest rate of overdoses in California immediately followed by Mendocino with the fourth highest. Humboldt County stands as the 11th highest. Trinity County’s data is not on the dashboard and Del Norte’s overdose rate stands as an outlier well in the middle of the California pack.

The data speaks for itself: the citizenry of the North Coast, living in a rugged landscape with limited economic opportunity, seems to be falling into the same behavior-related conditions that lead to “deaths of despair.”

The tower at Ukiah’s movie theater evokes a time of optimism and vibrant community [Picture by Ayled Zazueta]

Lindsey Daugherty, the Executive Director of Mendocino County’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told us, in her experience, “financial insecurity leads to higher levels of depression and anxiety, with many experiencing guilt and shame at the idea of not being able to meet basic physical needs.”

Daughterty explained that when the essentials of food, shelter, and clothing are not available, “mental wellness is forced onto the back burner at least until survival needs are met. This is also true for those that find themselves in the throes of physical illness due to the cycles of drug use and withdrawal.”

The fall of these industries did not just affect those that worked at those mills and farms. Daugherty said, “As we have watched the decline of these industries, we have also witnessed poverty, addiction, and homelessness become generational among the impacted.” The trauma of financial ruin ripples through time and space. Daughtery went on, “People who watched their parents struggle to make ends meet are now experiencing this for themselves, with very little hope for a means to build a better life.”

The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think-tank that has eluded attempts to label its work as liberal or conservative, published a paper in July 2021 entitled Addressing America’s crisis of despair and economic recovery: A call for a coordinated effort

Their policy paper argued that attempts thus far to address America’s growing despair have been “fragmented” with a focus on treating symptoms of this despair, not the root causes. The paper argues for a federal-level entity to connect local efforts to other communities in need of those same strategies.

While the Center for Disease Control keeps meticulous records for mortality trends, the Brookings Institute is concerned there is “no system that tracks the underlying causes of these deaths.” Compare this practice with New Zealand or the United Kingdom, which are regularly polling their public’s well-being “as part of their national statistics collection.” 

The Brookings Institution proposes five key areas of development if a federal interagency task force was to be put into place: “data collection; changing the public narrative; addressing community-wide despair as part of the future of work; private-public sector partnerships; and despair as a national security issue.”

But, for us here on the North Coast, Washington D.C. is a long way away. Recently, Governor Gavin Newsom announced he is distributing over $10 million dollars to support attempts to end homelessness and drug addiction. Locally, Mendocino County is making strides with its use of Measure B funds and availing more mental health services to its residents. 

But, as the Brookings Institute asked, what is the underlying cause? Economics.

Martin Luther King, Jr. published a book of sermons entitled A Knock at Midnight. In it, he described the tragic, existential results of a person denied their right to earn a fair wage and see a brighter future: ” [If] a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.”


Editor’s Note

Lindsey Daugherty, the Executive Director of Mendocino County’s branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), recommended that anyone weighed down by financial anxiety or despair, consider reaching out to either the NAMI Hotline or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

  • NAMI Hotline
    • The NAMI Helpline is a free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals, and support to people living with mental health conditions, their family members and caregivers, mental health providers, and the public.
    • 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or info@nami.org Monday through Friday 7 am – 3 pm PT.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects you with a crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. Your call or text will be answered by a trained crisis worker who will listen empathetically and without judgment. The crisis worker will ensure that you feel safe and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area.
    • 988 (call or text) or 800-273-TALK (8255) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
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8 COMMENTS

  1. Lake County does not provide enough Behavioral Health services for the residents. And doesn’t have enough recreational services for children. Bullying also needs to be address again in our schools.

  2. Not sure how I feel about a “once-thriving homeless encampment.” I need to think about that one. Maybe it’s just my privilege talking.

  3. This statement is interesting and quite odd. “The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think-tank that has eluded attempts to label its work as liberal or conservative…”

    Interestingly enough the majority of their contributions are to one single party (guess which one.)
    https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs//totals?id=D000032148&cycle=A

    Here’s a snippet from page 18 of the above policy paper.

    “Despair as a national security issue”

    The extent of despair in our society has become a national security issue, for many of the
    reasons discussed throughout this paper. Desperate individuals with no narrative for the
    future and without the wherewithal to pursue purposeful and productive activity are
    particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories, fake news, and participation in extremist
    activities.

    Individual and community grievances have provided fodder for external manipulation by
    hostile state and non-state actors. This became clear during the contentious 2016 U.S.
    presidential election, when Russian entities, including the St. Petersburg-based Internet
    Research Agency, acted as proxies for the Kremlin by creating fake American persona on
    social media to stoke discord among specific groups. Similarly, during the COVID-19
    pandemic, conspiracy theories, fake news, and high levels of distrust toward both science
    and the government became major obstacles to collective action to stem the transmission
    of the disease. Just as public health recommendations to wear masks were challenged,
    government attempts to encourage mass vaccination have been undermined—including by
    targeted propaganda aimed at vulnerable Americans from the Chinese and Russian
    governments. The U.S. failure to bring the pandemic under control in 2020, meanwhile, had
    a major negative impact on its international standing, as underscored in successive Pew
    polls in this period.

    A complex contagion process underlies the spread of far-right radicalization within the U.S.,
    with despair a key underlying factor…

    (I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusion of the type of ‘Task Force’ they wish to implement and for whom.)

  4. Mendocino Department of Public Health needs to be held responsible for the excess suicides. It was from their unlawful orders that violated human rights that caused the condition. But no one talks about that.

  5. Liberal Answers get voted in by these same counties and what do you get?

    The Golden State, despite its overflowing state coffers Gavin wants more taxes so rich friends can “study the problems” for big money at posh locations.

    With talk of inflation and shortages and gas prices, the nation is in the grips of economic anxiety, fearing the fair deal and honest work of the American Dream is beyond their grasp the article says while Biden eats Ice Cream and explains more Green policies belt tightening coming your way for your own good. John Kerry flies off to another Global warming gala.
    What about the poverty rate, cries this article? Who can afford the Biden “green” gas prices to be able to get to a job or purchase the $60,000 electric cars like Democrat Senators say they just drive by gas stations in (theirs are really in $100,000 plus models).

    The counties with the lowest wages and highest poverty rates in the state are paying the highest prices in the nation at the pump says this article.Yet you keep voting in democrats who make millions magically from their $100,000 jobs and get free dinners at the French Laundry at $700 a plate dinners and $6,000 wine bills.

    The Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C. think-tank that has eluded attempts to label its work as liberal or conservative says the article. You have to believe the tooth fairy exists if you believe that. Far left funding and backers.

    Governor Gavin Newsom announced he is distributing over $10 million dollars to support attempts to end homelessness and drug addiction says the article. California Gov. Newsom unveils historic $97.5 billion budget surplus claims CNBC. Where does this paltry 10 million go, to more studies?

    Mental health facilities went when the ACLU and lawyers sued them out of existence for restraining violent patients, who released injured other patients who sued, and injured workers going on disability. The One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest syndrome is now in the streets! Reagan said the state could not afford it anymore, and Gavin offers up pennies now to “fix” the problems they created with open borders, drugs flowing in, bad economic policies, catch and release crime etc ect etc

    Thanks Liberals and feel gooders- keep voting Democrat for more!

    • It’s good that while explaining how the liberals have destroyed everything you included Ronald Reagan, he did close most of the states mental hospitals and showed a budget surplus that was a lie! That’s when homelessness was born in the Golden state, thanks to Republican politics!

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Matt LaFever
Matt LaFeverhttps://mendofever.com/
I like to think of myself as a journalist for the everyman. Journalism has become a craft practiced largely by the urban elite. It’s time to take it back. I have been an Emerald Triangle resident since 2006 and this is year ten in Mendocino County. Please, email me at matthewplafever@gmail.com if you know a story that needs to be told.

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