On our collective wellbeing

Ogden Nash’s ditties are my favourite to inject levity and often insight into situations. Amongst others, he wrote:

Do not tell your friend
About your indigestion.
“How are you?” is a greeting,
Not a question.

This causes much cultural confusion.

In Germanic cultures, if they ask you how you are, it is deemed impolite if, despite looking miserable, you say something upbeat. In modern day Britain, “Good weekend?” isn’t an invitation to launch into a great story about your barbecue party but an acknowledgment of each other and the correct answer is “Could have been worse” or something similarly dour.

As many around the world pay tribute to much-loved chef Anthony Bourdain, who committed suicide a year ago, I am not ashamed to admit I thought of Ogden Nash.

Did anyone ask Bourdain how he was? Did anyone wait to listen to what he did and did not say?

***

Ogden Nash was wrong. “How are you?” is a question and we need to rethink it all.

***

Whenever a well-known person kills himself or herself, many discussions erupt on the nature of depression, its invisible nature, whether it is a personal failure or something else, why so many rich and famous are killing themselves.

There is often little thought given to our own role as individuals in not listening to the sounds of silence among our own friends and family.

Bourdain wrote in his book Medium Raw that he was regularly suicidal after his first marriage ended, and that his “nightly attempts at suicide ended” when he met a woman in London. These words were all there for us readers to see.

Did we actually see them as we skimmed through his book?

Do we notice things?

Do we listen without looking at our phones?

Do we equip ourselves with the right words to ask without enabling someone to clam up?

Do we know how not to tell others to experience something by projecting how we might handle something?

Do we know how to help?

Will we hang around while they seek help?

***

Do we shore up our own psychological resources?

Do we know ourselves well enough to know how we manage our even keel?

Celebrity deaths foster chatter but in my mind, with an awareness of suicide contagion, there is concern as I look around at my own friends and colleagues.

Which among my own set of people is about to act similarly?

Do I know how to read the signs?

How would I help someone with suicide ideation? Especially if they have been talking about it? Am I listening?

Someone had been telling me for months and I had not dealt with it well except nudging them to seek help because I felt they wanted to be heard without having to scream!

Over time I have learnt to nudge people towards therapy, some sort of regular and intense physical work such as yoga or swimming or running, some charitable work, and most importantly, making myself available as much as I can and listening.

***

In most high income countries, men commit suicide at rates 3x higher than rates at which women commit suicide.

While suicide rates are falling in India and China, they are rising in the USA.

There is an epidemic of loneliness among men, especially middle aged men. Social isolation extracts a price from individuals and society alike. Loneliness is known to lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s.

This should concern us.

***

(From my own earlier writing on whether sexism is destroying men)

Boys hear about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviours pretty much from childhood too. “Boys don’t cry”, “stop <doing something> like a girl” (which wins the sexism double whammy award in dismissing both genders at once!) are common lines thrown at boys.

I have written earlier about how young men are deemed expendable with institutions and process design showing little regard for their care, safety and emotional needs. See how has loss of freedom, big or small, informed your life?

In my doctoral research, I dug into body image issues that drive unhealthy behaviours. To my surprise I learnt that the Adonis Complex, the term applied to body image issues and dysmorphia affecting men, didn’t even begin to be studied properly until the 1990s.

Men are often brought up with the idea that they must be the provider, the protector and the main earner, an expectation also often reinforced in traditional romantic practices such as a man being expected to pay on dates. Gross unfairness aside, this can burden a man with unreal responsibilities especially when in a dyadic (typically heterosexual) relationship the partner decides to quit the work force as the family grows.

One might ask if calling this “destruction” isn’t overly dramatic. I would say: No, it is not.

Men are taught that they are not to feel or express their emotions, from fear to caring to affection. Men are expected to fit body image ideals. Men are expected socially to conform to “player”, “stud” or other sexual behaviour stereotypes.The last bit here is specially problematic as recent APA research suggests it creates huge mental health issues for men.

“In general, individuals who conformed strongly to masculine norms tended to have poorer mental health and less favorable attitudes toward seeking psychological help, although the results differed depending on specific types of masculine norms,” said lead author Y. Joel Wong, PhD, of Indiana University Bloomington. The study was published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology®.”

These weird sexist expectations can destroy men’s view of themselves as well as of their view of women as I have written earlier (see why do so many Indian men see women as sex objects, as evident from the recent BBC documentary, ‘India’s Daughter’?)

***

I often think in lyric and poetry.

Pink Floyd’s Time is one of my all-time favourites. Roger Waters, who wrote it when he was very young, was evocative and poetic but not accurate.

Hanging on in quiet desperation isn’t just the English way.

It is global.

It is local.

***

“Are you as well as you look?”

Fabulous, poignant question. Should be asked more often, rarely is.

The answer, spoken or otherwise, must be heard.