Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Number 6 shouldn't be a number

I have the faux dirt-stained t-shirt, the one the team gave out as a promotion, the one-size-fits-all that is too big for me to wear. I couldn’t wear it now even if it did fit. The shirt represents the all-out style of play that came to characterize its honoree, a style of play that may have killed him.

New research by the CDC shows that suicide rates among Americans aged 35-64 years increased substantially from 1999 to 2010, making suicide a more prevalent cause of death than motor vehicle crashes. An article in yesterday’s Washington Post attempts to enumerate the possible reasons for the dramatic spike in suicides among these baby boomers, including the era of individual freedom and possibility in which they grew up, the modern culture of youth worship and lack of reverence for elders, and mental and physical health issues that have led to a take-a-pill-to-make-it-better way of life.

Baby boomers…have struggled more with existential questions of purpose and meaning.” We landed on the moon, cured polio, and could have sex without babies as they were coming of age. Free love, man, free love. Except it wasn’t free. It came with a steep price. The “illusion of choice,” says Barry Jacobs, director of behavioral sciences at the Crozer-Keystone Family Medicine Residency Program. Turns out, the moon isn’t made of cheese, and no man is a tropical island paradise, no matter how much he thinks so or how many pills he takes to pretend he is.

So where is the support system to help find purpose and meaning? Community has been discarded in the name of “individualism.” As a result, boomers are isolated from others far more than the previous generation. (I don’t know if the current level of vitriol on the internet has anything to do with boomers raising their children in this kind of isolation, but I’m willing to speculate.) They often live in Stepford Wives suburbs where everything looks the same. Even if they appear to have many friends, there is the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses;” materialism is the end all, and failure to live up to the myth of the American Dream is seen as a failure in being a human being. Depression is common, as are stress-related chronic illnesses, but too often, people face these issues by themselves, whether out of pride, embarrassment, fear, or other reason.

No one knows what was going on in Ryan Freel’s head on December 22, 2012. He was always a strange guy; one has to wonder if the voice in his head he called “Farney” was more reality than joke. No doubt multiple concussions he sustained in his style of play contributed to his declining mental state. (Freel’s family donated his brain tissue to test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that degenerative disease responsible for suicides of several former NFL players.) But the concussions alone aren’t the whole picture. Freel was known to suffer symptoms of mental illness – depression and alcoholic tendencies among them. Family, friends, and teammates said he’d have periods of isolation, when he’d cut himself off from the world. When he suffered a head injury where he was carted off the field by ambulance, teammates said they didn’t hear from him for weeks after the incident. Baseball seemed to be the only thing that sustained him, and when he could no longer play, it was the end of him.

Freel retired from baseball in 2009 after several subpar seasons with the Orioles, Cubs, Rangers, and Royals. After retirement, he spent time coaching youth baseball players in an organization called BLD Baseball (Big League Development.) One must wonder how those kids felt when they heard the news, but that’s nothing compared to what his three little girls (ages 4, 7, and 9) must have experienced. There is no more selfish act in humanity than suicide. But it’s also selfish of us not to fight for better mental health programs and better support systems for those who feel that life is a bigger burden than they can carry. It shouldn’t be. Life is too precious to waste, too wondrous, full of seemingly impossible things that happen against all odds. But we can’t face it alone. We're not supposed to; we're social creatures with an unlimited capacity for awe.

Self-inflicted gunshot wound, they call it. In 2010, 19,932 people left this world in that manner. Study after study shows that gun availability is a risk factor for suicide. This study showed clear empirical evidence that reducing access to firearms led to a decrease in suicide rate. Despite this, it’s a topic that is largely ignored in the current gun control debate. Some can’t make the connection, and the worst among us say, “Let them kill themselves.” Do you think Ryan Freel’s little girls feel this way? How about those kids he coached or all those people whose lives he touched?

Our country has a suicide problem. It’s partly an outcome of our warped sense of values, where we have to buy, buy, buy to keep ourselves happy, and when we can’t, we take pills to make things better. Far more importantly, however, is that we’ve lost our support structure, our sense of community, and mental illness is a stigma that we don’t talk about, no matter how many times we see those prescription drug ads with the umbrellas that rain on the inside. I feel like the internet is bringing some of that community back and look to the example of the community on blogs like Red Reporter, which has greatly facilitated meeting other Reds fans in real life in multiple cities across America and the globe. Here’s to hoping the new generation can overcome the isolation of the last and that we can reestablish the concept of community on which this nation is built. Besides, there’s far too much baseball to watch together.