By Rachel Hicks
A recent study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Pittsburgh found that the death rate from stress-related conditions increased by 83 percent among middle-aged white people in Virginia over the past 20 years.
The “deaths of despair,” as researchers call them, include suicides and deaths caused by drug overdoses, alcohol poisoning and alcoholic liver disease.
“Over time, chronic stress, despair, and the pain they produce can induce harmful coping behaviors,” the study said.
Since 1995, the Shenandoah Valley, which includes the Rockbridge area, has also seen the third highest relative increase in stress-related causes of death in Virginia, according to the study.
Lexington psychologist Vickie Kave said people often reach a breaking point when day-to-day stress exacerbates deep-rooted psychological issues. That’s when they turn to substances for relief.
“The underlying issues [for substance abuse] are various mental health issues or disturbances,” Kave said. “They could be… anxiety or depression.”
John Young, the executive director of Rockbridge Area Community Services, said marijuana and alcohol are the most abused substances in Rockbridge County.
This year, patients treated for marijuana addictions have accounted for over 24 percent of all people who received treatment at RACS, according to the center’s data. People seeking treatment for alcohol abuse have also made up over 20 percent of all RACS patients.
“A lot of times when folks step out of addiction, they don’t know what to do with themselves because they’ve just been caught up with that,” Young said. “So, part of treatment is just getting them caught up in new social networks that are going to be healthy for them.”
Young said outpatient treatment is RACS’ primary service, which allows people to continue their recovery process at home after they receive therapy.
The RACS staff also offers individual counseling and works with local Alcoholics Anonymous groups to provide support for people with ongoing problems.
Areas in Virginia with the biggest increases in stress-related causes of death also had greater economic problems, including high unemployment and poverty rates, according to the study.
About 22.2 percent of Lexington residents and 12.3 percent of Rockbridge residents live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate is 11 percent in Virginia and 12.7 percent nationwide.
“There’s become a sense of hopelessness … with no employment and no way out,” Kave said.
But she also said sleep, nutrition and exercise programs are crucial for preventing dangerous habits and substance abuse problems.
Sarah Crihfield, a 22-year-old Buena Vista resident, said she tries to deal with her hectic lifestyle using healthy coping mechanisms.
“I sleep and play with my dog,” she said. “I just feel like a lot [of stress is] on me.”
Crihfield works at the IHOP on North Lee Highway to support herself and her mother.
“We’re tight on money,” she said. “I work fourteen hours and I’m a server, so I pull doubles, work all night and I don’t feel like I get enough sleep.”
Local florist Victoria Fallen said while some aspects of her job are also stressful, she tries to enjoy the creative parts of her work.
“Driving can be stressful – getting to places on time and making sure nothing happens to the flowers on the way,” she said. “But I like working with the flowers. I like making artistic arrangements out of them.”
Young said it’s important to watch out for family members and friends who are beginning to cope with stress in unhealthy ways.
“Some people maybe don’t realize that they have an addiction problem and other people are telling them… ‘You need to stop and get this under control,'” he said. “A lot of times folks ignore that advice.”