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The World’s Most Widespread Illness

Earlier this year, the World Health Organization announced that depression has become the most widespread illness in all the world, and the numbers continue to rise.

This I am sure explains why the rate of suicide has risen so dramatically over the last 10 years. In the United States, suicide is the only top 10 cause of death that continues to increase each year. Also, for every suicide, there are 25 suicide attempts that fail.

I believe all of these statistics are particularly pertinent to men. Over the last 16 years I have been teaching and counseling men here at The Center for Executive Leadership. During that time, I have learned a great deal about depression and suicide. First, I believe the statistics for depression found in men is low. Most men have this core belief that “real men” are never supposed to get depressed. They perceive it as weakness. Therefore their depression goes unreported and keeps them from getting the help they need. This in turn, I believe, explains why 70 percent of all suicides are men.

For the family and friends who are left picking up the pieces after a man takes his life is always the question “Why?” What was he thinking? What would cause this man to permanently pull the plug and end his life and future?

But maybe an unclear view of the future is indeed the actual problem. As these men looked ahead, they did not like what they saw.  This is the one reality that I see in all men who struggle with depression – no exceptions.  Their future always seems bleak to them.  Dark.  Hopeless.  And no one wants to live if he perceives that his future will be utterly hopeless.

And what compounds their pain even further is that these men carry this heavy weight of despair upon their shoulders alone. They build up walls around themselves, not allowing anyone in. Again, men have developed this false idea that they are not supposed to struggle and get down. A real man is supposed to be emotionally strong. It makes for a very lonely life. I think this explains what Thoreau meant when he said, “Men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

As we consider hopelessness and depression, I cannot help but go back to the words of Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Denial of Death. Becker recognized how modern culture had become incredibly secular, and how God had become irrelevant such that many people believe that their ultimate future does not exist. We are here for a few short years, and then we die and, well, that is the end of it.

Becker contends that this widespread belief in no ultimate future has caused society to put more emphasis on sex, romance, money, and power…more than any other culture ever before us. We are trying to deal with our cosmic insignificance; therefore, we look to these things as a form of escapism…as a way to retreat into our own worlds of distraction and diversion.

But this strategy does not always work. We are continually reminded that life is ultimately empty and without purpose. It keeps breaking in on us that we have no ultimate future. And it only makes matters worse when a man is struggling with his work, his finances, and his relationships.

Dr. Martin Seligman is a professor of psychology at The University of Pennsylvania. He is considered an authority on depression. He wrote an article in Psychology Today entitled “Boomer Blues.” He apparently had done a great deal of research on the Baby Boomer generation. He compared the boomer generation with their parents’ generations, and he found that their rate of depression was ten times higher than that of their parents.  He then made an incredible statement:  “We are the most depressed generation in all of human history.”

And so the question that we all want an answer to: Is there a way to be delivered from depression?

Let’s start by admitting that depression is complicated, and there are no pat or easy answers. However, I do think that a man can survive almost anything if he has a sense of life-purpose that gives him something to live for in the future. In other words men can endure failure, shame, or any type of difficult circumstances if he has meaning and purpose which, in turn, gives a hope to his future.  I base my opinion, in part, on the following observation.

Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps. He wrote a very popular book, Man’s Search for Meaning. As a trained psychiatrist, he was fascinated as to why some of his fellow prisoners wasted away and died, yet others remained strong and survived. He concluded that we cannot stay healthy if we do not have hope in the future. Frankl wrote:

Life in a concentration camp exposes the soul’s foundation.  Only a few of the prisoners were able to keep their inner liberty and strength.  Life only has meaning in any circumstances if we have a hope that neither suffering, circumstances, nor death itself can destroy.”

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