Defining despair: Assessing the multidimensionality of despair and its association with suicidality and substance use in early to middle adulthood


Gutin, Iliya; Copeland, William; Godwin, Jennifer; Mullan Harris, Kathleen; Shanahan, Lilly; & Gaydosh, Lauren (2023). Defining despair: Assessing the multidimensionality of despair and its association with suicidality and substance use in early to middle adulthood. Social Science & Medicine. vol. 320


Despite considerable scientific interest in documenting growing despair among U.S. adults, far less attention has been paid to defining despair and identifying appropriate measures. Emerging perspectives from social science and psychiatry outline a comprehensive, multidimensional view of despair, inclusive of individuals’ cognitive, emotional, biological and somatic, and behavioral circumstances. The current study assesses the structure and plausibility of this framework based on longitudinal data spanning early to middle adulthood. We identified 40 measures of different dimensions of despair in Wave IV (2008–2009) of the National Longitudinal Study of Adult to Adolescent Health (n = 9149). We used structural equation modeling to evaluate hypothesized relationships among observed and latent variables; we then regressed Wave V (2016–2018) suicidality, heavy drinking, marijuana use, prescription drug misuse, and illicit drug use on latent despair. Our analyses find that models for separate dimensions of despair and overall despair demonstrated excellent fit. Overall despair was a significant predictor of Wave V outcomes, especially suicidality, accounting for 20% of its variation, as compared to 1%–7% of the variation in substance use. Suicidality was consistently associated with all domains of despair; behavioral despair explained the most variation in substance use. Given these results we contend that, lacking direct measures, latent despair can be modeled using available survey items; however, some items are likely better indicators of latent dimensions of despair than others. Moreover, the association between despair and key health behaviors varies considerably, challenging its status as a mechanism simultaneously underlying increased substance use and suicide mortality in the United States. Critically, further validation of measures in other surveys can improve the operationalization of despair and its associated conceptual and theoretical frameworks, thus advancing our understanding of this concept.




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Journal Article

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Social Science & Medicine


Gutin, Iliya
Copeland, William
Godwin, Jennifer
Mullan Harris, Kathleen
Shanahan, Lilly
Gaydosh, Lauren

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