A few years back, I was visiting a friend who confided in me: "February is a hard month for me." Several years back, her husband had been diagnosed with and died from cancer during the shortest month of the year.
July is a hard month for me. Twelve months ago, my friend Pat took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. I never imagined that something like that could happen. In April, I'd spoken at the 10th anniversary of his program at work. In May, I'd presented him with a national award. On the last day of June, I'd spoken at his retirement party. In July, I was preparing his memorial service.
Pat was great. He loved life, he worked hard, and he got things done. He was successful, one of the best. He was beloved, definitely had a following, and treated everyone he encountered with dignity and respect.
But the past year was a difficult one for Pat. Things at work were not going as planned. This bothered him greatly. I don't know the details, but what I do know is that he left his job on June 30th and he jumped from a bridge to his death seven days later.
Immediately after his death, I began to research suicide. I received a long list of articles and facts about the high suicide rate of men in their 50s (Pat's demographic ... and mine). I learned that from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among men in their fifties increased by fifty percent, and that for the first time, the demographic with the highest rate of suicide is 45 to 55-year-old men.
The information was right there, and had been for a long time, but who knew? I didn't. I have always known to worry about suicide was with teenagers, but I never thought about it with my peer group until now. Articles presented statistics and cited the most common ways people committed suicide, but offered little explanation as to why men in their 50s have the highest suicide rate in our culture.
Being a 50-year-old male myself who has also undergone "employment trauma," I have some idea of how a job change can lead to a deep darkness.
Loss of Identity
When someone defines themselves through their work and then leaves or loses a job, there is a void, bigger than anyone might have expected. It exists whether or not someone choses to leave or if it is forced on them. It's still gone. And regardless of how good you were, none of that seems to matter. Having done a great job for decades doesn't count as much as you might think. There is desperation to continue to be productive and to be effective and to be recognized for it.
When someone gives his or her all to a job, it is everything, or at least it feels that way. These individuals sacrifice health, give up family time, and often forgo financial gain. So when the work leaves, the regrets can pile on and the questions arrive. Why did I work so hard? Why did I spend so much time away from the family and miss so many games and events? Why did I pay for all those things that I was never remembered for? One begins to feel foolish, and when you feel foolish, it can feel like it's time to hide.
Low Self Esteem
When someone no longer has a chance to do what he or she is good at, and what he or she did for so many years, a huge void is created. Athletes encounter this at a much earlier age. People assume that one might like not working so hard and easing up a bit. What appears to be a blessing can turn into a curse. If you can't fill that void or pull off an encore, self-doubt creeps in and self-worth plummets.
When you invest all you have in your work, eventually all the people you know are related to work. When your job goes, you lose access to that community, even though some would protest that this is not necessarily true. When there's not a place at the table for you, you stop coming. The obvious groups to reach out to are friends and family, but if your entire life's work has been invested with work colleagues, it takes a radical shift in thinking, acting, and believing to re-engage one's best self.
Feelings of inadequacy can lead to self-destructive behavior and if that is the case, shame quickly follows. Alcohol abuse is identified as one of those behaviors. Whatever the challenges are, one can feel like they are suffocating, no matter how much oxygen is in the room. When you can't breathe, or you think you can't, you panic because there seems to be no way out of the darkness.
Five Things to Do
I have a friend who is a pilot. She told me once that most of what we know about air safety comes from studying accidents. Deciphering and determining what went wrong is the most effective (and honoring) way to increase safety. I feel the same way about Pat. I wanted to look back at what happened with the intent of it not happening again to someone else. I knew Pat was not in a good place, but I had no idea how much he was hurting or that he might do something like taking his own life.
I can't bring Pat back, but I can reflect on what happened and perhaps uncover what was hidden at the time. What gets revealed might enable us to catch someone before they jump.
1) Know the Facts.
I had no idea that suicide rates among men in their 50s was the highest in our culture. I have always assumed that it was highest among teens. We all talk about it with teens; no one had ever talked about it with my peers or me until Pat took his own life. We need to be more aware -- and that starts with talking about it.
2) Be Present.
I knew Pat was not okay, but he waved me off telling me he would be fine, that he was just in a slump. Pat insisted on being alone. I went along with it reluctantly, against what I thought I should do. But we need to keep people close, especially in the beginning.
3) Take Warning Labels Seriously.
Anti-depressants can play a significant role in helping people deal with mental health issues, but they do come with a warning. One of those warnings is that taking these medications can lead to suicidal thoughts. When someone is starting anti-depressants for the first time, or if a new one is being tried, we need to take the warning seriously and respond accordingly. Being present and checking up on friends, as well as encouraging them to be active participants in counseling, is important.
4) Act with Urgency.
Things can go bad quickly. We need to act fast. I knew Pat was struggling, but I figured I'd give him time to see if things got worse. They did get worse. On the morning of the day he died, I walked by his house and I decided not to bother him. I wish I had. I will never accept those responses again.
5) Practice Constant Vigilance.
Since Pat's death, I've known a number of men in their mid-50s who either quit or were forced out of their jobs. Now when this happens, I immediately get on the phone, start texting, reaching out on Facebook and if possible, jump in the car and drive to meet them. I don't hesitate and wonder if I am a good enough friend to get involved in their lives at this point.
It doesn't matter if they are my best friend, a colleague who I have not talked to for a while, or a neighbor I haven't seen lately. I just do it. I don't make a dramatic entrance. I just show up and keep showing up. I am firm and consistent. How you doing? I know it's hard! You did a great job. Tell me about your plans?
How can I help? Let's get together. Who are you talking to?
I try to set it up so that I call that person every week, preferably at the same time of every week so they anticipate the call. At first the calls often go to voice mail. After a while the phone gets picked up on the first ring. And I check in with a spouse or a sibling or a friend that is close by. How is he doing? What can I do? Who else can we get involved? Let's make a plan. We act as a team.
I want people to be aware without being alarmed. I am firm without being rigid. I engage without intruding. I'd rather be annoying to a living friend than lose a friend because I wanted to give them their space.
Until Pat's death, it never occurred to me that a fun, spirited, successful friend would take his own life. Now I think about it every day, and as a result have developed a practice that is part of my daily routine. I hope you will too.
If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.