Be Wingmen & Band Together for Survival – My Message to Men Living in Despair
I'm not a man. I have no idea what it's like to be a man. But I am daughter, partner, sister, aunt, friend, and co-worker to many men. I’m also the mother of three sons. So men's mental health matters to me. It should matter to all of us.
New research shows we have work to do -- our men are dying from "deaths of despair" at increasing rates. Men die by suicide almost four times more than women. They die from overdoses more often. And while overall mortality rates have been continually decreasing, the death rate for middle-aged white men (45 to 54), particularly those with a high school degree or less, have increased since the turn of the century.
Researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton dug into why the number of suicides, overdoses (primarily from prescription drugs), and alcoholic liver disease—what they call “deaths of despair”—were on the rise for this population. In an interview with NPR, Case pointed to a lack of steady work as a primary factor: “So we are beginning to thread a story in that it's possible that [the trend is] consistent with the labor market collapsing for people with less than a college degree. In turn, those people are being less able to form stable marriages, and in turn that has effects on the kind of economic and social supports that people need in order to thrive,” she said. When expectations are crushed by reality, health suffers.
In Lonely at the Top, clinical psychologist Thomas Joiner focuses on the steep price men pay as they pursue success. He calls them the “lonely sex,” a title that becomes more fitting as guys age. They often force personal relationships into the backseat to make room for professional ambitions. When something difficult arises in their lives, men find themselves with no one to turn to for help. In place of conversations, they self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, extramarital affairs, or other destructive behaviors. [NOTE: In this month's podcast I interview Dr. Joiner about his thoughts on this topic. Check it out: https://www.sallyspencerthomas.com/hope-illuminated-podcast/1]
The antidote to this cycle is to reduce feelings of loneliness and push back against “traditional norms” associated with masculinity (independence, stoicism, etc.). We need to foster connections and create a sense of purpose and gratitude in the lives of men of all ages and backgrounds. I helped found Man Therapy, an online resource, because experience has shown me that we need innovative, bold approaches in response to these tragic statistics. During a Twitter chat at the end of last year, Colorado State University’s Jeff Nepute said something that really stood out to me: “[It’s] important for men to be flexible: self-reliance is important, so is being able to rely on others.”
Humans are tribal creatures. Those that band together survive. We need to provide safe outlets for men, so they can leave the lone wolf stoicism behind and feel comfortable asking for help whenever they need it. Rather than putting the onus on them to ask for help, we should emphasize peer support and reciprocity. A great example: the Air Force Materiel Command’s Wingman Intervention Program. Airmen are taught the skills to intervene in a safe and beneficial way when they see fellow airmen engaging in potentially harmful activities, either on or off duty (there is a Wingman app too!).
Whether it’s a fellow first responder at Code Green, a partner during a workout at Phoenix Multisport, another father at the Dad 2.0 Summit, or the fictional Dr. Rich Mahogany from Man Therapy, it’s imperative that every guy has a guide or wingman (or five!).
It’s also important to spend some time focusing externally. Feeling that one’s life has a larger meaning or purpose—that you’re working toward or for something bigger—can be a game changer. Volunteering (check out Project Helping) is a great place to start.
One key thing to remember: All of this takes time. Men want quick results, but developing relationships, engaging with therapy, and fostering community are all slow processes. Keep in mind that out of suffering comes growth. If we can extract meaning from our darkest moments, it makes it easier to focus on our growing strength and resilience.
Those going through difficult times can find their way through the dark tunnel of hardship —reach out and grab a supportive hand to help pull you through, someday you might get a chance to repay the favor.
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Book me for your next speaking engagement! I bring the stories, science and strategy to the cause of suicide prevention. My multiple points of experience as a psychologist, mental health advocate and person with lived experience give me many perspectives and a pragmatic approach that both inspire audiences and move their feet to action.
Connect with Dr. Spencer-Thomas by visiting her website: www.SallySpencerThomas.com and following her on Facebook @DrSallySpeaks, Twitter @sspencerthomas and LinkedIn to learn more participate in her monthly podcasts, blogs and twitter chats!
About the Author:
Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and was a recent invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities.