Living in Depression’s Bull’s-eye

I am white. I am middle-aged. I used to have a big corporate job, but not anymore.

According to the data, I am prime candidate for depression.

The suicide of Robin Williams triggered a national conversation on depression and its devastating impact. Although short-lived in the news cycle, it prompted a much-needed explanation of depression and its causes, how it can remain hidden from friends and family, and what treatment options are available. If one person was pulled from the dark brink of self-oblivion, all this talk was worth it.

Prominent in the conversation was an Aug. 12 article in the Washington Post showing how Williams’ suicide is not a statistical anomaly among white, middle-age males facing career uncertainty. Although white men have always committed suicide at a higher rate than any other group, according to CDC data cited by the Post, since 1999 the rate has spiked 40 percent.

Although the specific thrust of the article was about men already diagnosed with depression, the data does not make such a distinction. Regardless of prior conditions, older white men kill themselves disproportionately to other groups. Why? The Post article doesn't explore the roles economic uncertainty and cultural change play in the increase in our suicide rate, but it does highlight two factors that are common to men.

  1. Men don’t talk about sadness. Sure, we will claim to be sad about losing a football game or running out of beer after the stores close, but you know that isn’t what I am talking about. Men don’t share emotional vulnerability. At least not if we want to be invited back to poker night. And that is a problem, according to the experts cited by the Post: “Men are much less likely to seek help than women are,” said Michelle Cornette, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. And “apart from seeking help professionally, [men] utilize their friendships in different ways. Men are less likely to disclose to a male friend that they are struggling psychologically.”
  2. Men don’t handle aging and the loss of power well. Men are used to being in charge at home or at work — "king of the castle." As we age, we feel that power slipping away. We are physically weaker and less certain of ourselves in threatening situations. When a career comes to an end, the power that attached itself to our position disappears and we feel alone and vulnerable. The combination of job loss and aging are a toxic stew, the Post notes: "Aging may take a larger toll on the male psyche. Older men who value their self-reliance may find themselves less able to cope as they age, when they are no longer in their prime physically, sexually and at work.

'I often refer to them as being developmentally unsuccessful, because they’re not equipped to handle the challenges of getting older if they are so tied into their masculinity … and making a lot of money,' said Christopher Kilmartin, a psychology professor at the University of Mary Washington. ‘Things aren’t the way they used to be,’ [Dost Ongur, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School] said. ‘The power you knew, the control you knew, aren’t the same.’”
Given the above risk factors, it is not helpful that we men are very efficient at killing ourselves. No Valium and wine cocktails for us, by God; we jump off buildings, put a bullet in our brains or hang ourselves like Williams. According to the CDC data, men represent only 20 percent of suicide attempts but account for 80 percent of suicide deaths.

Me? I’m doing OK, but I stay very active, have reasonably decent health and financial security (the exorbitant pay of a Talent Management blogger, you see), enjoy close family relationships and like to laugh. These are all buffers against depression, according to studies, but I realize I am fortunate.

There are far too many people in my situation who aren’t as fortunate. They suffer from depression in silence and loneliness, or fling themselves into frenzied activity as a means of coping. If you think this is you, tell somebody. If you can’t bring yourself to open up to others, educate yourself. Look online; a great place to start is here. Another is the website of the Dave Nee Foundation, a suicide education and prevention foundation I am proud to be associated with.

What will you learn, middle-age white guy staring at the end of a career? That you are not alone and there are people who want to help.