A while ago, I was talking to a fellow coach about a disturbing pattern I was seeing take shape in my male demographic. Once I had taken a step back to see it all clearly—my work, my research, my day-to-day interactions—the words that came out of my mouth were:

“This is a goddam epidemic.”

The intensity of my statement might have startled me if it hadn’t been building for so long—quietly, with each expression of regret I witnessed, each look of bewilderment and resignation I watched cross the faces of the men I knew.

My coaching friend listened intently, her expression grave. I didn’t know then just how much the conversation had affected her. Later she wrote to me and told me how my words had been playing out in her own life. The men in her family were dying all around her. She was shaken by the reality of the threat, for these were men she cared about. She wanted to put a stop to it, and I wanted to give her the tools to do so.

As I dove into my coaching work with men, I found myself seeing the signs everywhere. I watched as friends and loved ones fell into the same patterns that would quietly endeavor to break them. I grieved for the light that fell away from their eyes over time.

I vowed right then that I would be an advocate for men—men that didn’t know how to speak out for themselves and make changes in their lives. I refused to be quiet. It is the quiet that is killing men every day.

Men are dying in large numbers—not in ways that are always obvious to the eye. They are dying from the inside out. Furthermore, this disease of the spirit is not just affecting men, it is threatening everyone. These men are our husbands, brothers, uncles, fathers, and friends. I may even be talking about you if you’re a man reading this.

Through my work with men 40 and older I had found that there were patterns that I could not “un-see.” Was it just the individuals I had worked with or was this everywhere? I started to do research to confirm my suspicions. I kept my goal in mind: I knew that by continuing this work, I was not only helping these men with their lives now, but also strengthening entire families, and possibly—in the long term—saving a life.

So what exactly is going on here?

A large number of men are so concerned about financial security and providing for their families, that it’s coming at a great cost. They are missing out on life, connection and joy. Furthermore, this sacrifice is not limited to the person feeling it—its side effects can be seen throughout families, within relationships, and across generations.

Men are dying of loneliness.

Regret for time not spent with their wives, children, and families is eating away at men, while they continue to strive for financial security and success. On top of the fact that they don’t have the time or energy to make and maintain new friendships, men are struggling with competitive attitudes in the workplace that can get in the way of forming close bonds. Also, sometimes men want to connect with others but are not sure how to do so. How does one reach out to another person without risking rebuttal and judgment? How does one let someone in emotionally without appearing vulnerable? Despite pervasive male stereotypes, men feel just as deeply as women; they just display it differently. Often flawed structures of society leave men feeling trapped—they may not even have a name for the feeling, or a “why” behind it. They just know they are not happy.

One of my frequent goals, when I work with men in their 40s, is to help them reconnect in meaningful ways within their primary relationships. It’s a lot like choosing the perfect time to open a window in their marriages or partnerships and let in a desperately needed, renewing breeze. Furthermore, the children they have are quickly growing up, and the risk becomes that without focused connection, these men may lose that chance for a close relationship with their children. This widening gap affects not only the self-esteem of the father but also the self-worth of the sons and daughters. If not addressed, this gap will become a wound that will leave a scar on future generations.

Another struggle I have noticed is the one men face when trying to regroup after divorce. Despite the nature, origin, or atmosphere of the divorce, their self-perceived role in society is thrown suddenly into crisis. His identity and possibly his self-worth had been directly tied to that now-severed relationship. What’s more, how does a man connect with others when he doesn’t know who he is introducing with that handshake? In coaching, we deliberately reflect for a time on the past and use it to empower decision-making for the future. With this approach, men become more confident in what they are looking for in future relationships.

When I work with men in their 50s and 60s I am often helping them climb out of an emotional and spiritual hole. Their relationships might have stagnated. They often do not have close connections with their children and possibly grandchildren. At the minimum, there is an unspoken distance. This is not usually the result of not wanting closeness for themselves and their families; they are simply all too often not sure how to get different results.

Another obstacle men face at this age is the shift from work to retirement. This is a fearful subject. Some of the most common statements I hear are:

“I don’t know why I want to work all the time.”
“My wife wants me to retire, but I don’t want to give up working.”
“After doing this for 30 years, I’m not sure what else to do…”

There is usually an unspoken level of frustration and blame projected onto everyone around them. This reaction is not at all surprising when one considers the fear and worry for their self-identification that they are living with daily. Again, they may feel trapped by their situation and they lash out at the people closest to them if only to feel like they are fighting against something.

The unspoken emotional burden men are carrying around with them is staggering. Without it being addressed, often men fall into a place that they can’t climb out of. I don’t say this to scare people—however, the seriousness of this epidemic can no longer be ignored. I believe that we all have the ability to make personal growth, until our last breath. However, the desire to make change in ourselves and the world around us seems to dramatically decrease as we grow older. This is especially true if life has not shown us that another way is possible.

What is more disturbing is that not only is the spirit slowly dying, but the stress created by this phenomenon is actually killing men. Stress has been linked to heart disease, cancer, and other neurological disorders. Also, the statistics coming out the UK are that 1 in 6 men over the age of 65 are taking their own lives. In the US, white males 45-64 are at the highest risk for suicide.

What if learning new skills and strategies to living a full life could put a stop to this horrific pattern? A fresh perspective can be the thing that helps start a person on a new path—one that will lead him to a life worth living…long before these statics becomes another family’s worse nightmare. Being proactive could be the bravest step this generation of men has ever taken.

Everything I have seen and experienced has led me to this truth:

Men have incredible strength, emotional fortitude, and (with the introduction of a new perspective) the power to change their lives. Once they see another possibility and have a firm understanding of how they got where they are, nothing can stop them from going after their goals and desires. With a little bit of support from a coaching partnership, they are utterly brilliant at creating strategies for moving forward in their lives.

I’m passionate about working with men. I’m also particularly gifted with this age group. It’s reflected in my clients’ words of gratitude, in e-mails from wives witnessing the change in their husbands, and in feedback from adult children, who are noticing a shift in their father’s overall health and wellbeing. I am gratified to see these results, but more than anything, I am grateful to be part of this change, knowing that is one less father—brother, uncle, son, friend—who will wake up the next morning feeling as though he had quietly died over the last decade.

If you are a man in this age group or love someone who is, I want you to know that now is the time for men to be living the lives that they desire. Men have the responsibility to themselves to reach out—for help, for friendship, for their dreams—because they are worth it. This is also the chance to make change for their families—a change whose effects will last far beyond their own lives.

 

Read the second post in this series, Men are Dying Part 2, We bend, until we break.