For the last few years, we have joined our friends at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport for the "Out of the Darkness Walk." Our friends are Peter and Nancy von Euler and their daughter Sarah. Four years ago, their eldest daughter, Emma, nearing the end of her junior year at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, took her own life.
Two years ago, I wrote a column about my wife Laura's and my participation in the walk. Some very touching and interesting speakers shared their experiences with us after the walk.
Later -- maybe because I was more mindful of them -- I heard people spouting myths about suicide as if they were facts. Educated people said to me, "Isn't it really a gay teenager thing?" or "Isn't it mainly a cyberbullying thing?"
Recently, we have been bombarded with stories of cyberbullying that led to suicide. It certainly put the issue on the radar. National magazines feature front page stories of cyberbullying suicides. There is only one reason all those magazines have this emblazoned in bold on their covers. It sells magazines.
Cyberbullying is a story magazines can tell. There is a good guy (victim) and you can hiss at the bad guy (bully) -- it's a classic good-vs.-evil scenario. I have read about cyberbullied victims in England and Canada. We don't know what is happening in our neighborhoods. These sensational cyberbullying cases have led to laws being passed. Every politician wants to be on the good side. Rarely is there such a clear-cut good side and bad side -- black and white with no gray area.
Away from the national magazines and sensationalized stories, things are a little different. While recognition of cyberbullying is good, once the cameras stop shooting, the politicians leave the podium and the soundbites fade away, the reality of suicide remains. The fastest-growing group and one of the groups most at risk is a group I belong to: middle-aged men.
Google "middle aged men and suicide" and the results will scare you, especially if you are a middle-aged man or have one in your life. Middle-aged men are killing themselves in alarming numbers, and they are rising.
The magazines may simplify it, but suicide is complicated. Here are some of the facts we know:
Women attempt suicide more than men, but men are more likely to die. We tend to use more violent means.
Nine out of 10 people who commit suicide have a diagnosable condition, such as depression. Diagnosable but often not diagnosed.
Men are not diagnosed as often because many of us don't reach out. We are supposed to "stop being a baby and tough it out. Suck it up."
Another factor driving middle-aged men to suicide is the current economic climate. This recession -- which we are told we are coming out of -- has been called a "mancession." The industries that suffered the most in the downturn, such as construction, were male-dominated. Men suffered a disproportional share of the layoffs.
Men also tend to identify more with their professions, and much of their self-worth is tied to it. When it is gone, what do we have left? Mental heath professionals and people who work to prevent suicide will tell you that it is more complicated than I have outlined and extremely more complicated than saying the word "cyberbully."
Politicians and magazines don't want complicated, grey areas and hard-to-explain issues. And suicide is complicated. It will take resources and research to find the answers.
At noon Saturday, Oct. 12, at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Peter, Nancy and Sarah again will participate in a fundraising walk to benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They are walking for Emma's Team, and anyone can join them.
To learn more about the Oct. 12 walk or to donate, visit: www.afsp.org. People who want to participate in the walk can join Team Emma at that site.
Thomas Lawlor is the author of the "Father's Journal" column, which appears regularly in the Fairfield Citizen, sister paper of the Norwalk Citizen.