Confessions of a Recovering Optimist

March 19, 2017

    “THE whole country is on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” then-DC Council member David Catania said in 2012 during one of our typical conversations, which often were informative, funny and insightful. While the at-large legislator’s commentaries could also be laced with cynicism, this remark was infused with empathy and concern.


I shared his assessment that something was asunder—and not just in the nation’s capital but across the country. The trauma was understandable, given that we were fighting a war on multiple fronts; the housing market was collapsing all around us as part of a major recession, constructed in no small measure by Wall Street’s greed-fueled ingenuity.  Instead of pausing to reflect on  reality, however, I chose to bathe in after-glow of President Barack Obama’s re-election. Where some people had considered his 2008 election as the first African-American president a fluke, returning him for another four years underscored, I thought, the argument that America had arrived at a higher level of political maturity, demonstrated by the diverse population of voters who cast their ballots for him-- not once but twice.


In 2008, I wrote an essay proclaiming that because of Obama’s election African Americans had entered a “no excuse zone.” With a black man elected president, arguably few things would be outside our reach. Further, a stable black family on an international stage expanded the African American cultural narrative, which for decades had suffered both self-inflicted and external beatings.


After Catania lost his bid to become mayor of the District, our regular discussions ended. During my quiet moments I returned to his words about the state of the mental health of America. Interestingly, there was tangible proof for our assertion, though we made no reference to it. In 2012, more than 40,000 Americans took their own lives; 6,648 of them were older than 65, according to published reports.


Suicides often are instigated by depression, stemming from financial distress or a loss in social status, leading to a reduction in the quality of life. The National Center for Health Statistics reported between 1999 and 2014 an alarming increase in self-inflicted deaths in the United States. The rate for middle-aged women between 45 and 64 jumped by 63 percent. It increased by 43 percent for men of the same age group. In 2014, 42,773 people committed suicide compared with 29,199 in 1999.


The country wasn’t just on the verge of some vague nervous breakdown. It was in strait-jacket mode.



   DONALD Trump’s election underscored that fact—not that I believe everyone who voted for him was mad. Rather, I wondered why so many of the folks, who only four years earlier had hoisted a blue flag for Obama and the Democrats, decided to choose such an unorthodox candidate. While Hillary Clinton may have won the popular vote, Trump’s electoral-college victory still seemed to betray the dream that Obama represented. What happened?


Sure Clinton hadn’t sufficiently reached out to various communities, as some political pundits and operatives noted. The problem, the reason for the change of course, was hiding in plain sight, although even now there is little reference to its true nature.


Consider that last year, in 2016, The Washington Post had published a series of stories calling our attention to the suicides in rural America. Women--middle-aged white women- were poisoning themselves with alcohol. In Allegheny County, Md. there was a 90 percent increase between 1999 and 2014 in suicides in that age group. There were also increasing numbers of stories about the rising deaths from prescription drugs, later heroin use, among a much younger group of people. 


What happens to a dream deferred, Langston Hughes asked in a poem. “Does it dry up//Like a raisin in the sun…Or does it explode?”



            SPEAKING to the New York Times, Robert Putnam, author of more than 14 books including Bowling Alone: Collapse and Revival of American Community and Our Kids: The American Dream Crisis, saw the increasing suicide rate as “part of the larger emerging pattern of evidence of the links between poverty, hopelessness and health.” It is hard to know exactly what sponsored the suicide epidemic. There can be no denying, however, the correlation between its rise and the decline of work in America in key communities, including those in rural areas—places where Trump saw his strongest support.


At a recent town hall meeting in McDowell County, West Va., sponsored by MSNBC, conducted by Chris Hayes with Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vermont Democrat) playing a critical role, the anguish of the unemployed and the under-employed was palpable. Phil, a man who had just returned to his job in the mines, spoke of the struggle he had experienced not having employment that provided him an income sufficient to take care of his family. His pride and that of others wasn’t just bruised during those months, it was fractured. Further, their city—Welch—had once been prosperous or at least there was a stream of cash that kept a few people in cars and with houses. Now, the community was dying a slow but undeniable death, aided in part by outward migration of some and the over-medication of others.



            THE torment evidenced in rural America had been felt decades earlier in other parts of the country and by other groups. Interestingly, a friend, active in the political arena, argued that African Americans are resilient. We have endured much oppression and pain in America, beginning with slavery and continuing through Jim Crow era, the administration of Ronald Reagan, and the recent hike in police violence. I was reminded of that journey while watching an episode of the documentary “Many Rivers to Cross.” When I considered dealing with President Trump, I concluded that black folks would be fine.


But the madness, that nervous breakdown that Catania spoke about, had not escaped us. Actually, we may have been its earliest and most pronounced victims. Hadn’t we seen our own epidemic of suicides or unexplained violence perpetrated by us against us?


Between 1993 and 2012, the suicide rate nationally among black children age five to 11 increased from 1.36 to 2.54 per one million children, according to a report issued in 2016 by Jeffrey Bridge at the Research Institute at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. That rate could have been higher, noted Kimya N. Dennis, who teaches sociology and criminal studies at Salem College and is a national expert on suicide and self-harm among blacks and Hispanics. Instead of calling the violence in the African-American community simply street violence” or “bullying,” she said analysts “should consider ways in which certain black youth seem to intentionally invoke violent encounters in the expectation of being harmed or even killed.” 


 Most people remember the phenomenon known as “suicide by cop.” There also is “suicide by interpersonal violence,” said Dennis. That happens “when individuals provoke family members, friends, or strangers to make lethal responses to them. Some of these situations may amount to suicide, which would imply that low statistical rates of suicide for African Americans are not what they seem.”


In his book When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, William Julius Wilson argued that “A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless.  The kind of joblessness and attending issues that once were relegated to urban centers have taken residence in rural communities.


“High rates of joblessness trigger other neighborhood problems that undermine social organizations, ranging from crime, gang violence and drug trafficking to family breakups and problems in the organization of family life,” continued Wilson. He could have added suicide to his list.


Back in the 1970s, I may not have pondered suicide but I remember the absence of work created rage. For several months, I was behind in the rent of the lovely three-bedroom home where my young son and I lived. Complicating that matter, all of the utilities were disconnected at the same time. I had no where to turn. My child went to live with his father. I accepted assistance from a man I knew, who thought with his loan he had purchased certain rights to my time and attention. One night, when he rang my door bell, demanding answers about my activities and associations, I paused the discussion long enough to retrieve the gun in my chest of drawers. The conversation ended abruptly but I was forced to acknowledge my situation had become desperate. I needed work.


Within a few weeks, I learned of an opening at a church nonprofit for a community organizer.  One of the requirements for the position was that I had to own a car.  I didn’t even know how to drive when I sat for the interview. A friend advanced me $200, which I used to purchase a used VW bug. Then she taught me how to drive. I got the job, which may have saved my life.



     IT’S easy to understand how the worry about basic necessities could have caused some people, particularly those without work, to fall prey to promises of employment, a steady income, a return to those days when life was sweet and mellow, even if it was filled with sweat and dirt. Racism may have been part of their reasoning but more likely than not, most chose based on personal, familial and communal survival.


Phil and his West, Va. neighbors found hope in the promise of jobs. While he may have returned to the mines, truth be told, his employment there is temporary. The world is a different place than when his father and grandfather worked in the coal mining industry. Technology has made more than a few Americans obsolete, just at the time they desperately need work and the self-confidence a job brings.


How fast can the people in rural America or the urban unemployed learn the skills and information critical to tapping some of the entry level technology jobs? Not fast enough.


Many of them--the unemployed and under-employed-- are poised to lose their government subsidized health insurance, eliminating their chance to receive adequate mental health or drug treatment.  Cuts in food stamp allotments may soon follow, as well school lunches that fill the gap for their children between breakfast and dinner.  In other words, the federal government under Trump and the Republican led Congress either doesn’t understand the lives of growing desperation being lived by many Americans or simply doesn’t care.


That means this period won’t simply be remembered as conservative times. Sadly, history will record this era as second wave of mass suicides in America.
























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