Girls and boys have been telling us for decades that American culture is to blame as to why we are seeing such high rates of suicide in the U.S., as recently reported in the New York Times, with particularly high rates among boys and men, and why the rates are increasing so dramatically. The "sweeping pain" that Americans are now feeling is due, according to the young people who have participated in my developmental studies, to the fact that we live in an "me, myself, and I" obsessed culture that has only gotten worse over the past 15 years. Young people have also been telling us, directly and indirectly, that our privileging of the stereotypically masculine, with its focus on emotional stoicism and autonomy, over the stereotypically feminine, with its focus on relationships and empathy, is hurting them and sometimes even killing them.
If we want proof of our self-obsessed culture, we need only look at our selfies. We now care more about looking good in our facebook profiles than with taking time to make genuine connections. We continue to define maturity and success in individual terms, with self-sufficiency and individual accomplishment being the focus when these goals should be, according to young people, defined in terms of having and maintaining healthy relationships. According to a nationwide study by Harvard University, we raise our children to value academic achievement over kindness and not to worry about what others think or feel when mutual understanding, as all children know, is the pathway to health and happiness.
The girls and boys in my research and in the research of others have revealed that we are, by nature, social human beings. The reason we have thrived as a species, according to Charles Darwin, is due to our social nature. Those who have close friendships or strong social support networks are less prone to depression, less likely to get physical illnesses, and more likely to live longer lives. In a six-year study of 736 middle-aged men, having a strong social support network significantly lowered the risk of heart attack and fatal coronary heart disease. Smoking was the only risk factor comparable to a lack of social support.
In a study of 30 industrialized countries, epidemiologist Richard Wilkerson and Kate Pickett conclude that the two most important factors determining the health and wellbeing of people living in these countries are social status and friendships. Those who lack friendships and those who have low social status are at greatest risk for health problems and death. Furthermore, they find that societies that value independence over friendships, such as the U.S., have higher rates of depression, violent crime, and addiction. The research underscores that fact that close relationships and tight-knit communities are not simply feel good issues, they are life or death issues.
Girls and boy also tell us that our high rates of suicide are due to American masculinity that splits the mind from the body and boys from girls. It makes boys and men into thinkers and not feelers and girls and women into feelers and not thinkers. As one teenage boy in my study said "it might be nice to be a girl because then you wouldn't have to be emotionless." Boys and men and girls and women struggle because we live in a homophobic and misogynist culture where being stereotypically "girly" and "gay" (i.e., being sensitive, empathic, relationally oriented) is equivalent to being lame and no one wants to be "lame."
The solution to the problem of American culture and American masculinity, as young people have been telling us for decades, is to change it. We need to value our social and emotional capacities that help us build healthy relationships. We need to define manhood and maturity as the ability to maintain mutually supportive friendships. We have within ourselves, in other words, the capacity to create a more humane and healthy society. We must act now to help our loved ones find the relationships and communities they most want and need to thrive.