Suicide, Loneliness – and the Vulnerability of Men

It’s Getting Worse

Suicide rates have been rising dramatically. But of special concern, as reported in The New York Times is the number of middle-aged men killing themselves: “Suicide has typically been viewed as a problem of teenagers and the elderly, and the surge in suicide rates among middle-aged Americans is surprising.” (See, “Suicide Rates Rise Sharply in U.S.”)

“It is the baby boomer group where we see the highest rates of suicide,” said the C.D.C.’s deputy director, Ileana Arias. “The boomers had great expectations for what their life might look like, but I think perhaps it hasn’t panned out that way.” She added: “All these conditions the boomers are facing, future cohorts are going to be facing many of these conditions as well.” The conclusion is that “the risk for suicide is unlikely to abate for future generations.”

The University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox recently pointed out in The Atlantic that there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties. Following the seminal research of Emile Durkheim, he added that people — and especially men — are more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).” (See, “What’s Driving Suicide Among Middle-Aged Men?”)

It has been getting tougher for men. Brought up to believe they are the stronger sex, expected to be the primary bread-winner for their families, with corporate leaders and entrepreneurs as role models, they have been finding it difficult to sustain their expected social roles. As a result, their self-esteem has been taking a beating.

Wilcox goes on: “And over the last two decades, it’s men without college degrees who have ended up most disconnected from the core institutions of work, marriage, and civil society. Guess who is most likely to kill themselves? Men without college degrees.”

“In fact, according to recent research by sociologist Julie Phillips and her colleagues, suicide has surged in recent years . . . among precisely this group of less-educated middle-aged men, even as suicide remained essentially stable among middle-aged men with college degrees over this period.”

Ross Douthat commenting on these trends in The Times noted: “The hard question facing 21st-century America is whether this retreat from community can reverse itself, or whether an aging society dealing with structural unemployment and declining birth and marriage rates is simply destined to leave more people disconnected, anxious and alone.”

Yes, Douthat is correct to note a “retreat from community,” but in generalizing the problem he moves away from the insight that it is typically middle-age men who are most at risk. They are the ones who suffer from disconnection and declining opportunity as a result of such trends as growing economic inequality and shrinking job markets.

And he moves away from seeing it as relevant to politics and social policy. At the very end of his piece, citing an article in The New Republic on “The Lethality of Loneliness,” he notes “one in three Americans over 45 identifies as chronically lonely.” In other words, he changes the subject: “There are public and private ways to manage this loneliness epidemic — through social workers, therapists, even pets. And the Internet, of course, promises endless forms of virtual community to replace or supplement the real.” (See, “All the Lonely People.”)

He reduces the problem to one of mental health and proposes various forms of supportive psychotherapy as a solution. Politics has become irrelevant.

As a therapist myself, I certainly am sympathetic to the call for more therapeutic services. Those who are suicidal need therapy, to be sure. But the loss of community is not a problem that can be dealt with through psychotherapy. That’s just passing the buck.