I was five years old when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid. “Why do I have to go?” I asked Uncle Harry. He looked at me with his round face and kind eyes. “Your father needs you,” he said simply. “What’s the matter with him?” He turned away and looked back at the road. In our family, we didn’t talk about such issues. Later I learned that my father had become increasingly depressed because he couldn’t support his family. I grew up wondering what happened to my father, whether it would happen to me, and what I could do to keep it from happening to other families.
When my first son, Jemal, was born on November 21, 1969, I made a vow that I would be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me and do everything I could to create a world where men were fully healed. The next day I founded MenAlive to help men and the families who love them. We’re offering an exciting online event, with myself and five other experts in the field, including Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice & The Blade and most recently with anthropologist Douglas P. Fry, Nurturing Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future.
Depression impacts men and women, but its impact on men can be particularly deadly. According to men’s health expert Will Courtenay, author of the book Dying to Be Male,
“Despite suicide rates that are 2 to 18 times higher for men than for women in the United States, early documentation on the prevalence of depression among women based on self-reporting has resulted in an emphasis on treating women for depression and suggested an immunity to depression among men.”
Why are men so much more likely to commit suicide than women and why do we still fail to recognize male risk? According to social scientist Dr. Thomas Joiner,
“Men’s main problem is not self-loathing, stupidity, greed, or any of the legions of other things they’re accused of. The problem, instead is loneliness.”
This a problem too many professionals, as well men and women, fail to recognize.
Dr. Courtenay cites statistics on suicide that show the clear increase in suicide rates for males as they age. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the suicide rate:
- Between 55 and 64 is 3.1 times higher for men than for women.
- Between 65 and 74 is 6.3 times higher for men than for women.
- Between 75 and 84 is 7.0 times higher for men than for women.
- For those 85 or older (the fastest growing demographic) is a
staggering 17.5 times higher for men than for women.
Both women and men must deal with the stresses that are associated with aging. Why haven’t we recognized the importance of loneliness as a risk factor in men? An important clue comes from social scientist Dr. John Cacioppo. In his book with William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, they say,
“Social isolation is on a par with high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise, or smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.”
In his book, Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success, Dr. Thomas Joiner notes that even very successful men can become lonely. He says that with age,
“men gradually lose contact with friends and family. And here’s the important part, they don’t replenish them.”
I’ve seen that problem in my own life in the lives of most men I see in my counseling practice. Instead of maintaining our friendships and developing new ones, too many men let old friends slip away. We look for escapes from our loneliness in our work, in alcohol or other drugs, in on-line pornography or other cyber activities. These pseudo-solutions only serve to increase our loneliness.
Most of us realize that it’s never too late to change our diet or improve our exercise regimen. Likewise, it’s never too late for us to admit we’re longing for connection, to take the risk to reach out to others, improve our relationships, and make new friends. It may be the best health advice we’ll ever receive.
The alternative isn’t pleasant. Dr. Joiner reports on a postmortem following a suicide, a man in his 60s.
“He did not have friends…He did not feel comfortable with other men…he did not trust doctors and would not seek help even though he was aware that he needed help.”
That was certainly the case with my father. After he was hospitalized, I found a number of his journals. I still get tears as I read them and realize how isolated he felt. I wish I could have shared what we now know about men and depression.
Here is a note from my father’s first journal, written when he was his old self, full of joy for life:
“I feel full of confidence in my writing ability. I know for certain that someone will buy one of my radio shows. I know for certain that I will get a good part in a play. Last night I dreamt about candy. There was more candy than I could eat. Does it mean I’ll be rewarded for all my efforts? Has it anything to do with sex?”
Journal number ten was written three years later. The economic depression of the time and the depression going on within his mind had come together. His entries are more terse, staccato, and disheartening. I still get tears when I feel how much was lost in such a short time.
Your flesh crawls, your scalp wrinkles when you look around and see good writers, established writers, writers with credits a block long, unable to sell, unable to find work, Yes, it’s enough to make anyone, blanch, turn pale and sicken.
Faster, faster, faster, I walk. I plug away looking for work, anything to support my family. I try, try, try, try, try. I always try and never stop.
A hundred failures, an endless number of failures, until now, my confidence, my hope, my belief in myself, has run completely out. Middle aged, I stand and gaze ahead, numb, confused, and desperately worried. All around me I see the young in spirit, the young in heart, with ten times my confidence, twice my youth, ten times my fervor, twice my education.
I see them all, a whole army of them, battering at the same doors I’m battering, trying in the same field I’m trying. Yes, on a Sunday morning in early November, my hope and my life stream are both running desperately low, so low, so stagnant, that I hold my breath in fear, believing that the dark, blank curtain is about to descend.”
Six days after his November 8th entry, he took the pills and was later committed to the state mental hospital. Though he survived, our lives were never the same. But he was one of the lucky ones. He did survive and attending to men’s health can help others survive.
For more than fifty years now I have worked to heal men and the families who love them at MenAlive.com. This year I’ve launched a special program to heal men, their families, and our connection to the Earth, our one true home. You can learn more about the kickoff event here.
I also am launching my moonshot vision for mankind which you can learn about here. I call it a moonshot because it’s a challenging program with big objectives. I realized that if we could improve men’s health and bring it inline with women’s health, we could make a huge difference in the world.
As my colleague Randolph M. Nesse told me,
“If you could make mortality rates the same as female rates, you would do more good than curing cancer.”
Dr. Nesse’s colleague at University of Michigan, Daniel J. Kruger, PhD says,
“Over 375,000 lives would be saved in a single year in the U.S. alone if men’s risk of dying was as low as women’s.”
If this vision resonates with you and you’d like to join us, please consider our kick-off event on November 19th.
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