By Paul McMullen
Hate fouled the Boston Marathon and greed led to the Bangladesh sweatshop tragedy, but the most disturbing news this spring regarding human nature was not announced with violent video, but with cold numbers in a long-range governmental study.
From 1999 to 2010, according to data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate among Americans 35-64 spiked by nearly a third, from 13.7 deaths per 100,000 people to 17.6.
Those, of course, are the reported numbers. Who knows how many suicides were not counted because of a family’s shame or shock? In an era in which social media are supposed to promote our interconnectedness, alienation and isolation increase.
The suicide rate among U.S. military veterans – about 18 take their life every day – is a national disgrace. Just as publicized, it seems, is the epidemic of brain injury and suicide in the National Football League.
Less sensational, so perhaps more alarming: Among men in their 50s, the suicide rate in the U.S. in the first decade of the 21st century increased 50 percent.
The bulk of those deaths occurred before the economic downturn, before the American dream went poof for millions who lost their job and maybe their identity, the ones who had to dip into meager retirement savings to make the mortgage or pay off a tuition debt, let alone take a family vacation.
Too many lost faith, or never had it to begin with.
Too many were undone by conspicuous consumption and the easy availability of alcohol and prescription drugs.
And too many men bought into the American myth of self-sufficiency.
Watch closely the Viagra ads on TV, the ones in which the middle-aged hot-rodder or rancher solves his other problem – the overheated engine or the muddy road stopping his horse trailer – by himself. Those ads, filmed in an iconic Western setting, evoke the strong, silent archetype that John Wayne epitomized.
My favorite Duke role is Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers.” Its happy ending includes a series of family reunions and hugs, and fades out with him walking off into the sunset – alone.
Ethan Edwards would not say dirt if he had a mouthful. Nearly 60 years later, the message lingers, that asking for help is a sign of weakness
That works on screen, but not in real life.
Some never learn to ask for help, whether from a family member, friend or God. While that can be a source of comedy – see the pre-GPS dolt who refuses to stop the car and ask for directions – it is a trait that can become life-threatening.
My brother, Tim, was my first coach and remains my mentor. Last August, he dealt with one of the worst events a family man encounters, the death of his wife, Mary. Processing his grief, he still sets a good example. If he is having a bad day, he says so, and says why.
We all need help. It is the affliction of the American male that he is hesitant to ask for it. Sometimes we need a nudge. There might be a husband, brother or son at your dinner table. Ask how he is doing, if there is anything he wants to share.
The more he answers, the healthier he will be.
Paul McMullen is managing editor of the Catholic Review.