No one has quite been able to put their finger on it. But there is something definitely afoot in America, with an alarming rise in suicides among those ages 35 to 64. This trend has disproportionately affected middle-age white Americans, who have a whopping 40 percent increase in the suicide rate since 1999. The rise, particularly among people in prime working age, should serve as a canary in the coal mine, warning us of a larger sociological problem.
The problem has been studied from a psychological angle, and even from the perspective of the declining economic fortunes faced by many Americans since the Great Recession. But this trend precedes the downturn, although signs point to the fact that the country’s economic woes may have a compounding factor. While suicides increased by 1 percent from 1999 to 2006, the rate of increase doubled to 2 percent after 2007. Other studies have pointed to drug and alcohol abuse — especially the proliferation of prescription narcotics to treat pain. But even that explanation falls short: Isn’t drug abuse, especially prescription drug abuse among middle-age people, merely a symptom of a deeper malady?
People are also looking at social media. The proliferation of readily produced images and content may have created a perceptual divide among people who see their friends as thriving while they struggle. Of course, much of this is a mirage as our lives may not be as exciting as we attempt to portray them on our social media sites.
Candidate Barack Obama promised to restore hope to America, but that is a check that has not been honored. People are limping back into a job market that is substantially weaker than before the recession, and they feel they have lost so much ground that even jobs at their previous wages would hardly suffice to help them catch up.
Many have lost their homes, their professions and even their identities amid a “gig economy” that offers little and promises nothing. While these trends have affected both the old (65 and older) and the young (35 and younger), they have particularly hit those who cannot delay major life responsibilities and those who have already fulfilled their major roles as breadwinners and parents.
The rise in despair is certainly a symptom of the dashed hopes of many Americans. They can no longer see any light at the end of the tunnel, and for a people who are constantly told that they are the masters of their own destinies, the disconnection between aspiration and reality has been extremely depressing.
The lingering pain and lack of clarity have created a fog of uncertainty that is for many even worse than the stabbing pain of economic disaster. I was once a guest aboard a friend’s sailboat on a beautiful sunny, windless day. The problem was, of course, that there was not even a hint of wind, and the boat was more or less stalled. My friend and his crew spent time tightening the sail, balancing the weight of the boat and trying myriad other tactics to try to capture what little wind there was.
The hardest thing a sailor has to do, he explained, is to learn to sail in the doldrums.
“At least during a storm, your attention is captured on trying to keep the boat from sinking,” he laughed. “But the doldrums, where there is a total absence of wind and current, are the worst, because you feel that you cannot make any progress whatsoever. Many a sailor has gone crazy in the doldrums, with nothing to do and too much time on their hands.”
A few years ago, in the wake of the Great Recession, The New Yorker magazine featured a cover image with the Titanic in the background, while fat cats in a lifeboat were floating away in their tuxedos while smiling, drinking and smoking cigars. The implication was that even if America were to sink, the wealthy and privileged would somehow get out alive.
Nothing could be further from the case. Whether issues plague the rich or the poor, whites or minorities, they will ultimately impact all of us. We should think about these trends with a measure of compassion, because you never know when they will hit close to home.
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