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  • Lenore Lambert

The "worried well" (let's stop saying that)

I'd really like to ban that phrase. It's so harmful! So diminishing of genuine pain and striving in life.

What comes up for you when you hear it? For me, it's short-hand for "this person has plenty of money so any problems they have aren't serious" as if the struggle for material security is the only one that deserves compassion - the only form of struggle that's real.

If this were true, the more wealthy a country becomes, the better its mental health statistics would be.

This is not the case.

The USA has the 6th highest GDP per capita in the world and yet they are ranked 160 on suicide (where #1is the lowest/best suicide rate - i.e. they are the 23rd worst). These rankings are out of 183 countries that report on suicide (there are 195 countries in the world).

Australia's pattern is similar. We're 10th on GDP per capita, and yet rank 142 on suicide (41st worst).

Even if we allow for the fact that some developing countries may not report accurately, and even if we just limit the comparison to developed countries, the USA has the third worst suicide rate and Australia, the 9th (out of 21). Switzerland is an interesing case - 3rd highest GDP per capita, 7th worst suicide rate in the developed world (33rd worst or 150th overall).

(To quench your curiosity, South Korea has the worst suicide rate in the developed world, followed by Belgium which has liberal voluntary assisted dying laws. So if we were to take the latter out of the comparison, we'd all move up an unflattering notch on the suicide rankings.)

Our societies' efforts to bring everyone out of poverty and ensure people aren't stressed about 'getting by' are extremely important (the housing crisis in the developed world, of course making this more challenging right now). But can we stop applying the see-saw principle here? That is, only one of us can be up, only one group is deserving of care?

If someone, regardless of their wealth, decides that life is so bad that they simply don't want to live it any more, and they ELECT to end it - how is that any less of an emergency than someone struggling to make ends meet? That person is in a catastrophic situation!

Suicide is often called the death of despair. We are not just physical beings by any shot. Material security is important, but it's only one piece of the puzzle. In fact here's a reminder of the Nine Elements of Human Flourishing - the nine experiences we want to populate our lives with to flourish fully. You can see material security is on there, but it's just one of nine!

The Nine Elements of Human Flourishing

© Flourish Personal Growth 2024

A few years ago, I was training (for my sport of athletics) in a squad of younger athletes - most of them were in their 20s. Among them were some refugees from Africa. Compared to them on wealth, I was in a much better position. I haven't always been, I lived below the poverty line myself in my early 20s - but by the time I was training with this squad, I'd improved my lot on that front.

What struck me though, was that in other ways, they were so much richer than me! Two of them had families back in Africa with whom they spoke every day and obviously had very close and loving relationships. They had fled during the Commonwealth Games here in Australia but their families had supported, nurtured and nourished their talents and the love between them was obvious when they spoke.

On the measures of belonging and connection in the model above, they were much richer than me!

My athletic achievements as a Masters athlete (three times World Champion, Australian Records, a World Record) show that I had the talent to be a professional athlete. But that ship sailed without me. This is primarily due to the lack of a supportive, nurturing family. The one I was born to bequeathed me neither the confidence, support, nurturance, attention, nor encouragement to make something of my talent.

As you read this story, does your mind take a sarcastic tone and go down the 'oh, you poor thing, you didn't become an Olympic athlete' route? If so, this is what I'm talking about.

Luckily (and through much hard personal work) missing the opportunity to harness my potential as an athlete didn't devastate me. But this kind of thing can rock people's lives quite seriously.

There are successful people from all walks of life, including athletes, who have taken their own lives. They had all the material support they needed. But that isn't enough for us to flourish as humans.

So next time you hear someone refer to the worried well, maybe enquire what they mean. Is there a callousness in the term? Is there an assumption that because someone's ok financially, that they're not struggling - or if they are, that their struggle is not worthy of care?

Financial security is no insurance against misery - certain types of it perhaps,- but let's bear in mind those suicide stats. They cut across socio-economic groups. We need much more to flourish than material stuff.

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