Vince Mercuri: The despair of isolation

September 7, 2018

On June 7, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report that studied suicide rates in the United States from 1999 to 2016. The report noted that in 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans 10 or older died by suicide. In Pennsylvania, the rate of increase from 1999 was 34.3 percent; 25 states had an increase of more than 30 percent.

Many factors contribute to suicide among those with and without known mental health conditions. The top issue contributing to the alarming increase in suicides was relationship problems. A startling 42 percent -- almost half of these deaths -- were the result of relationship issues. This should make us all stop and reflect on those close to us and the nature and health of our interpersonal interactions.

The current sociological trend of increasing drug overdoses, coupled with the CDC report of increasing suicide, shows a society that is adrift without clear markers to guide us through the journey of life.

It is a generally accepted principle in the theory of the psychological development of human beings that people go through three major periods of psychosocial development: organization in childhood, disorganization in adolescence and reorganization in adulthood.

In 1950, noted psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson published his theory on the eight stages in the life cycle. The theme of Erikson’s work is that all individuals struggle with certain tasks and issues at certain periods of their lives. He emphasized the struggles between the negatives and positives of each period of life that help us to grow or not as we move toward the next developmental stage.

Today’s fragile community makes me reflect upon stage 6 of Erikson’s model: intimacy vs. isolation in young adulthood. This period of reorganization is lengthy and typically occurs between ages 21-39. At this stage, young adults have the ability to form warm and mutual connections; they become involved in a career and begin to settle down and have families; and then sacrifice and make compromises for the sake of their relationships -- close friends, family, community and marriage. On the contrary, a sense of isolation may be a consequence if an individual is unable to form authentic relationships built on mutual trust. Difficulties in relationships, rejection and mistrust can foster painful experiences that drive people to isolation for fear of further negative relationships.

The resolution of this task of intimacy vs. isolation is paramount to overall human development. The ability to form connections at the physical, emotional and interpersonal levels in a genuine manner is at the core of bonding and committing to others for mutual fulfilment in work and personal lives.

People who fail to resolve this task in a healthy manner will withdraw further into themselves, fearing more rejection, blaming others and avoiding meaningful relationships. This results in more isolation, self-pity and feelings of depression. This cycle of despair can be mitigated by an honest evaluation of one’s life, reflection on courses of action to correct issues and intentionally connecting with others to help navigate the choppy storms of life.

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