By Sharon McElhone
In April of 2016, Men’s Health reported that the “overall suicide rate rose 24 percent in the last 15 years” for middle aged men. It’s well documented that the suicide rate for middle-aged men is on the rise. The online article went on to list resistance to getting mental help, less of a purpose in life, job loss, recessions, and substance abuse as reasons that lead middle aged men to ending their lives by their own hand. A commercial for Kingdom, a T.V. series, sat in the background behind the article, so I clicked on a preview a couple of hours before needing to pick up my kids from school. The two deliveries by actors that rung the loudest were the following: “The strong do what they can. The weak suffer what they must,” and “We need to eliminate the obstacles, find the breaking point and when you smell the blood, it’s about going for the kill.”
We put a man in the Oval Office, who made a name for himself firing people, and the elimination of a contestant whether they are on a dance floor or marooned on an island can be caught on TV almost any night of the week. Interestingly enough, eliminating people to find a winner is easy. One of the most difficult things to do is carry another person over the finish line with you for a win, especially if the person that is being carried over the finish line has mental problems or is a child or elderly or a caregiver. Truth be told, the American motto of elimination as a way to lighten the load, increase production, and increase chances of winning seems to be having a negative affect on middle aged men and may contribute to their suicide rate.
If we, as Americans, changed the format of how we win, for instance paid for universal childcare and better mental health and substance abuse programs, we would disrupt the current system that overlooks the pressures placed on middle-aged men. Men wouldn’t necessarily feel a burden to be breadwinners. Alcohol and/or drug addiction may be reduced and lead to less suicides in the long run, a healthier society, and happier families.
The American pastime of living vicariously through watching one victor cross the finish line after destroying the competition has prevented America from making crucial advancements and leads to additional pressures for both men and women. It will take a lot of minds working together to turn our more violent society around and sitting watching people eliminate one another for sport causes disengagement.
While in business for many years, I learned that mental health problems, addiction problems, and family problems are stigmas, black marks. Goggle’s standard job questionnaire asks applicants if they suffer from depression. I shuddered to see a box for applicants to check. If a man is depressed, what support is truly available to him in a society that tries to eliminate the weak as a formula for success? How would Abraham Lincoln weather in today’s American job market with his bouts of depression? I was eliminated from the final round of my Masters program, which was an essay, even though I maintained a 3.6 GPA for three years. Universities with entrance requirements eliminate students until they get those meeting their requirements, which for many years prevented women and people of color from accessing a proper education.
The way we regard the process of elimination as the gold standard of how to succeed as an American may leave the majority, if not all Americans, fighting a constant deficit. The rise in suicide rates among middle-aged men may be an indicator that we don’t have things right in our society. Depleting the American soul by adhering to aggressive practices of elimination is worse for men. Women stay more connected to family support systems, which lowers their suicide rate.
An article recently reported that Eddie Vedder stood up in front of fans and talked about love after Chris Cornell’s suicide. The speech disappointed me in a way. There are many times I approach a person of real influence and talk to them about family issues and childcare issues that prevent me from getting to work and a need to solve the problem for all Americans and get rebuffed or get lip service. It’s only after a tragedy that we start talking about love. The music industry is filled with pressures that affect artists personally, financially, emotionally, and professionally. We’ve seen a whole slew of male artist kill themselves. Many musicians suffer from drug and alcohol addiction. Each blow off I receive after talking to a person of influence takes a little from my soul, but issues that leave families isolated such as the poor support for women transitioning from caregivers back into the workforce cannot be eliminated. There are so many ways to show love. For example, speaking out about drug addiction and alcoholism or pushing for policies that provide better mental care for Americans.
The mental health of today’s middle aged man is more at risk than ever especially if he loses his job and succumbs to alcohol and or drugs, especially if he supports a family and/or receives constant messages suggesting his inadequacy. The preview for Kingdom showed gorgeous men with six packs. My husband of twenty-four years no longer has time to go to the gym because he works a lot, helps with our young kids, and enjoys late night snacks. I rub his belly at night when we are in bed.
Most people recognize the inflexibility of the American business world to help bridge the canyon between men, health, and their families. It’s a nation that has ingrained in its citizens to be careful to not ask for time to deal with family or personal matters. Once I saw a job post on Craigslist that said “must be available twenty four hours a day.” It made me laugh. Netflix succeeded already at building a reputation for putting a lot of pressure on its employees. Word has spread.
What replenishes a spirit cannot be readily found in the traditional American workforce bent on eliminations to prove ultimately who are the strongest. Society is falling apart as we speak because all our eggs are behind one man with an unnatural amount of bravado, a man who eliminates anyone who doesn’t think like him. He says he will fix the nation all on his own. He says he is working for Americans when no one can fix climate change, the problem of terrorism, and nationwide racism without a team committed to carrying everyone over the finish line.
Replenishing the soul has become a private matter in middle age, something done outside of a cutthroat environment. I find peace through self-employment, family, and close friends, who never turn away from me when the work world does not rise to meet the high standards necessary to create a healthy working society. We base our standard on eliminating the competition, on not mixing business with the personal, and men have historically had more pressure to work and earn an income. They report that is why we saw the suicide rate rise during this last recession when so many lost jobs, savings, and homes.
Those who display weakness are often faced with the possibility of elimination in America. What makes matters much worse for men is they typically ignore their problems because they don’t want to appear weak. Once they ignore their problems for too long, they may be too difficult to surmount for some men and so they turn to self-inflicted violence. Understanding and support for the pressures they face isn’t part of our every day culture, but elimination is.
As a volunteer for Project Cornerstone, a special book reading program, I read to kids once a month during the school year. Project Cornerstone identified 41 developmental assets that build strength and resiliency in young people. They carry those assets into adulthood. The mission of the program is to create vibrant, caring communities. They found that those who have high asset levels are most likely to make better choices and those “with lower asset levels are more likely to get involved with negative or risky behaviors” like violence, drug and alcohol use, which can lead to depression and sometimes suicide. When I think about society after I’ve sat in front of twenty five kids and read to them from the book selection, I find an answer to our problems as a whole. However, so very few people work on this level to change a society that hasn’t recognized a need to change and a need to work on building assets to impart to every American. We are still working on the level of elimination. Building resilience and strength in people, in men, needs to start earlier and until we make asset building more of a national objective, we might continue to see the same levels of unhealthiness in our society. We shouldn’t continue to use elimination as a way to find the strongest among us. The practice undermines our values. There is another way to win. The suicide rate among middle aged men may not find relief until we open our eyes to the very cultural practices we revere when we strive to win. The final question is must everything be a commercial or a competition?