'The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets,' said Theodore Roosevelt. 'Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.'
Perhaps he was right; perhaps middle-age ought to be the time when we're most fully alive. According to a report released recently by the Samaritans in Britain, however, it may be the time when British men are at their lowest ebb.
Men aged 34-54 are now more likely to commit suicide than any other group in the UK. Males in this middle-age bracket are more likely to take their lives than teenage boys and four times more likely to do so than women of the same age.
A decade ago, men aged 15-24 formed the biggest risk group. In seeking to explain this relatively recent development, several dominant factors come into play. Among them is the change in gender roles.
Currently, 58 percent of UK university students are women and 60 percent of newly qualified solicitors are female, as are 56 percent of new doctors. An Oxford University study recently found that in a quarter of British couples, women are already the main breadwinner.
Some social commentators, among them committed feminists, now believe that while many nations on earth still deny women fundamental rights, an 'anti-male agenda' may be emerging in our own culture.
This, they say, may be taking feminist ideals too far. It is producing, among other things, deep confusion in some men, who no longer know who they are or what role they are expected to play in society.
Another factor in the changing suicide situation is the pressure of job loss, caused by the financial downturn and by the changing face of work generally. Psychologists are aware that men face different expectations to women when confronting a crisis such as unemployment. They're expected to 'suck it up and move on'; no space is given for emotional catharsis.
The changing nature of work may also represent more of a problem for men than women. Jobs once mainly suited to men – in heavy industries such as mining – are now harder to find, or are situated in remote, undesirable locations. Retraining is not always either attractive or easy for men in middle age.
Then there is the impact of drugs. There seems to be a growing interest among middle-aged Brits in drugs of the 'party' variety. This age-group was the most heavily impacted by the rave party drug culture of the 80s and early 90s.
A study cited in the Times yesterday concluded that 15 percent of the British population have taken party drugs at some point in their lives. Growing numbers of the middle-aged, it seems, are re-acquainting themselves with MDMA, the pure form of Ecstacy.
Dr Roger Kingerlee, a chartered psychiatrist, says that among men suicide is much more of an impulsive decision than it is for women. Substance misuse, he says, can raise levels of impulsivity.
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