Ryan Johnson was 22 when he succumbed to a heroin addiction that had intensified as the Erie, Pennsylvania, high school graduate grew disillusioned with his future. His mother found him in his room with his head slumped and lips blue.
It was June 28, 2014, the day of his sister’s master’s-degree graduation party.
“He just saw his life as not what he wanted it to be, and he didn’t know how to get it there,” said Sue Johnson, who lay next to her son’s corpse for an hour. He had dropped out of a two-year culinary program and was working part-time, low-wage jobs. He often compared himself with his peers in college and his athletic, academic older sister.
The fates of the less-educated and those who graduate from universities diverge in dire ways. Middle-aged white Americans without four-year degrees are at increasing risk of dying, a well-documented trend driven not only by drug use but