Recently on Twitter, Disparity asked for my opinion on the term mid-life crisis, which “…is often treated as a mental health condition.”
The term mid-life crisis has no formal meaning in mental health, though as Disparity says, the concept does emerge from time to time.
The original meaning of the word crisis was a turning point in an illness. In the past forty of fifty years, the connotation has extended to embrace almost any kind of challenging situation or adverse event.
The “mid –life crisis” is generally understood to refer to the particular difficulties/challenges that are inherent to the attainment of a certain age – usually 40 or 45. Here again, though, the meaning is blurred, and the term is often used to denote any difficulty encountered in that age period, and not just those difficulties that are directly related to the process of aging.
Despite the popular perception, mid-life is not particularly a time of crises. And the people who do experience crises in their forties are generally people who have experienced crises in their 20’s and 30’s. In my experience, most people actually become more settled as they enter the middle years.
Having said that, however, there are some challenges that are specific to the 40’s and 50’s that warrant mention. It is during these decades that most people lose their parents. This is obviously a challenge – not only with regards to the loss of loved ones, but also the loss of the family base, and the realization of one’s own mortality.
It is also a time when many people realize that they have reached the pinnacle of their career. For some, this is fine. They genuinely feel relief to be out of the rat race. But others find it disappointing.
Many people who were perfectly healthy in their younger days begin to incur illness as they approach middle age. This is becoming more prevalent, with increasing obesity, and other lifestyle issues. Obviously the experience of illness has a jarring effect, and can produce or contribute to a crisis.
Within the mental health system, a “mid-life crisis” almost always results in a “diagnosis” of depression and the prescription of antidepressant drugs. This, as I’ve argued extensively, is not only unhelpful, it is profoundly disempowering, and militates against the possibility of a successful adaptation to aging.
As a culture, we worship youthfulness, and middle-aged people are often lured by advertising into buying all sorts of products in a futile attempt to stay young forever. This is a marked psychological shift that has occurred in our society over the past 50 or 60 years. Back then, older people were honored – almost worshipped – by family and acquaintances – for their experience, wisdom, and their personal knowledge of history. And they were accepted – wrinkles and all!
Getting old, of course, isn’t always fun, and people in middle age get a glimpse of this, and perhaps find themselves recoiling from the inevitable. Some begin to engage in “youthful” activities – sports cars, body piercings, etc… But most people navigate these waters successfully, and manage to grow old gracefully.
At least, I think that used to be the case. With the increasing use of psycho-pharmaceutical products – who knows what’s ahead. Recent CDC figures show an alarming increase in suicides among people in their middle years.