Male suicide in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is killing men in their thousands every year. Being the biggest killer of men, in particular, under the age of 45. Think about that for a moment. An invisible battle which kills more men than cancer and heart disease and drugs. Men are four more times likely to kill themselves than women. More than 6,000 British lives are lost to suicide every year. Nearly 75% of those deaths are men. The male suicide rate is the highest since 2001. Samaritans published in a recent report that in 2013 out of the 6,233 reported suicides 4,855 were men. Quoted from the Telegraph ‘Around thirteen men will kill themselves today’. So why are so many men killing themselves ever year? I blame our upbringing and society.
It’s a common assumption women are better and more honest when talking about their feelings. My career is working in the health sector. Almost all of my colleagues are female. Do a quick Google search and type in counsellor and almost every picture shows women in a therapeutic room. During my study for my Health Care degree, I was one of the very – very few men in a huge classroom of women. As a trainee counsellor, my classrooms have been mostly female students. And having received counselling before my counsellors were women. When we think of people giving and receiving care we tend to think of women. Of course there are male health professionals too, but they’re in a minority. Women are more likely to think of suicide than men, based on research, but men have a much higher suicide rate, whereas women are more likely to ask for help. This sentiment is what I challenge.
Thinking back to my childhood, I played with a lot of toys. As a writer, I liked having toys to help me visualise battles and fights. I wanted figures of women so they could be queens and maids and warriors too. The problem is that my parents never bought me any of the female figures. My friends and I often climbed trees and got ourselves into trouble. Countless of times we fell and scraped our knees, requiring our parents to bandage us up. Our parents told us to stop wincing and crying and toughen up because men are strong and brave.
In primary school one of my teachers smacked me hard on the head and told me to man up. In secondary school I asked my headmaster to allocate the two hours of physical sport to studying in the library, something I enjoyed immensely. “You won’t be a strong man if you don’t play football and rugby.” He said. Regardless of explaining myself, I was made to feel feminine. A majority of my classmates enjoyed sports, and found it queer that I did not. “Don’t be a wuss you big girl.” “Man up!” “Grow some balls.” And speaking of balls, it infuriates me to hear these awful and meaningless exchange of words. What exactly do they mean? Having balls means we cannot talk about our mental health whatsoever? Do they strip away our rights to express our concerns? Are balls the reason why male suicide is high? Having them means we have to be masculine and tough and incredibly stupid to conceal our worries that it’s sending us to the grave? Because we have a penis and not a vagina?
Most shockingly, I’ve heard colleagues tell male residents to stop crying because men don’t cry. In other words, ‘Shut the fuck up and don’t express yourself because you’re not meant to do that. You’re a man. You’re not meant to feel emotion. You’re a strong and independent man… and if you cry you’re not performing as you should. Shut your feelings and problems to yourself, be strong for everyone else because they depend on you’.
We’re so obsessed with the image of men being muscular, bearded, strong and insanely powerful at dealing with situations. We’re telling men to silence their feelings, and care about everyone else’s. I’m involved in a lot of mental health forums, often listening to people speak about their thoughts. I’ve spoken to many men about their feelings, and a majority have problems they want to speak about, but fear of doing so because it may make their partners uncomfortable. Or that they will appear as being weak. They must be strong for their families. They don’t want to worry their parents. Has it never occurred to anyone that our insane expectations and false image of men are the reason we’re burying thousands a year? Why as a society are we reasonable with allowing women to express emotions but stigmatize men for doing the same? Unless I’m terribly shit at science, men aren’t robots and have feelings too…
I put the blame on parents. Education. Media. Society. It’s basically a cauldron of cruel expectations stewed into a killer disease that is often ignored and unspoken about. Mental health in general is considered a taboo subject. Now, before you start branding me all sorts, listen me out. I understand the sensitivity in the subject of mental health. In no way am I accusing parents and society of behaving this way on purpose. It’s sort of an unconditional affect. When we’re telling boys to not cry because it’s feminine we’re endangering their growth. We’re teaching them that the world has no cares for wanting to listen and help. We’re showing them that as men we are expected not to have feelings for ourselves but for everyone else. Suicide records begin from the age 10. Yes. It has been documented children have killed themselves.
These are the critical years where young males discover who they are. What they want. What they want to do in the future. What music they enjoy. What social group they belong in. Young boys in school can like music, dance, art, needle-work, drama and poetry just like girls can (I know, this is a shocking and revolutionary discovery, right?). It’s just not seen as masculine. By parents. Classmates. Teachers. If you want to dance and express yourself, you’re branded as being gay. Encouraged to do manly sports like football and rugby. And don’t do needle-work. That’s for women. Get your hands dirty with steel and iron and woodwork.
You may argue that teachers of those subjects would not discourage boys from studying them. I’m not saying those teachers are. I’m saying other teachers might do that. They certainly did when I was in secondary school. I enjoyed studying food technology. I was awful at it. I’m awful at it now but I enjoyed it. Most of the guys were in wood work. I was confronted by my wood technology teacher and asked why I weren’t with the other ‘lads’ doing ‘manly’ gritty work. Cooking is not a man’s business, leave that to the women. They’ll provide food while you’re out working. I seriously thought there was something wrong with me, and rather than want to talk to other people about how I felt, I was afraid of being labelled as weak. If only I knew then that speaking one’s mind is a strength.
We stereotypically have this bizarre imagery of men. Crowded in the pub having a few pints and talking about sport and women and politics. There’s a lot of banter exchanged between the men. Be honest with yourself, can you imagine one of the men changing the topic of the conversation to talk about something that is concerning them? A topic of mental health. Could be they are feeling stressed from work. Could be they feel lost with the direction they are going in life. Could be they are worried about their health. Could be they are upset with something they’ve read or seen. In your imagery, try your best to imagine the other men feeling comfortable to talk about it. And that’s without hushing their voices as though they’re talking about witchcraft. Honestly, I can’t imagine that.
When I speak to my friends I always ask them how they are doing. I’m going to make a bold truth based on my experience alone. Almost all of my female friends will tell me about how they feel. No matter how trivial or serious it is they can confide in me to share their feelings. I’m a fantastic listener. As a trainee counsellor, and having received counselling too, I have learned that advice is not the best way to helping people, but listening and helping them find answers to their situations is. Whenever someone replies “I’m feeling fine.” red alarms ring in my head. Something is wrong. They either don’t feel comfortable with talking to me or they don’t feel comfortable with talking about their mental health whatsoever.
Now, compare this to almost all of my male friends and they will nod and say “I’m doing fine, yeah.” What exactly does fine mean anyway? It’s almost a robot and static response we use to not engage in a bigger conversation about our mental state. We’re trapping ourselves in a coffin. And yet these same men are openly supportive of others talking. Whether it’s their partners or children or friends or colleagues. It’s rather stupid, isn’t it? And rather sad. Very sad. Heartbreaking.
Let’s have a look at social media. There are over a billion of users on Facebook. Social media, in my opinion, is like a mirror to the world. Just like how we would ‘fix’ ourselves in a morning when we wake up to walk to the mirror, fixing our hair, wiping the drool from our lips, rubbing sleep from our eyes, we’re in a state of showing everyone else in the world how fine and dandy we are. We couldn’t possibly show people that we’re not doing fantastic. How dreadful! No. We must show off our purchases. Our holiday tickets. Our Christmas presents. What expensive food we’re eating. The celebrities we met. Concerts we’re attending. Our graduations. Our promotions at work. Businesses we have started. Hypocritically, I’ve done a few of the above too. I use Facebook much less than I did before. I hardly post anything, and when I do it tends to be about health and social care. We’re in a consumerism age where bragging what we have somewhat raises our social perception. And just like in a Black Mirror episode we sacrifice our mental well-being for likes and popularity.
In the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, a study reveals that not only does Facebook and depressive symptoms combine together, but the whole process is linked to social comparison. Where we combine ourselves with our friends. The study shares that people are likely to feel down about themselves when looking at friends posting attractive pictures of themselves. Or comparing careers when a friend has graduated and received a job offer. Please do note, neither I or the journal are saying Facebook is causing depression in itself. It’s our attitude towards it that does. As of the moment, Facebook is basically a social vacuum of showing off our highlights. Let’s link this with male suicide in particular. If we struggle already to talk about mental health face to face, what chances do we have of talking about it on a social platform that encourages us to reveal only the best of ourselves. Online conversation can be an exchange of pictures nowadays. And everyone’s in a rush to have snippets of conversation. Do we really have time to talk about how we feel?
So, what exactly am I asking to change, and how we can do it? Well, reducing the high levels of male suicide would be fantastic. An achievable goal. It requires us to encourage men to talk about their feelings just like we do with women. It requires us to support men who are receiving mental health treatment. It requires us to change the term ‘committing’ suicide, a term used when suicide was illegal before The Suicide Act in 1961. It also requires us to put pressure on the government to invest heavily into mental health services. Waiting times are often 1-3 months to see a counsellor. It requires schools and education departments to encourage young boys to talk about their feelings. To support them in their career choices. To not stigmatize them on showing desires and emotions. It requires parents to allow their sons to cry. To show emotion. Without the ridiculousness of telling them men don’t cry. It requires partners and friends and colleagues to talk openly with one another about sharing emotions and worries and thoughts.
Finally, I think we could all do with some educating on the art of listening and speaking. It’s difficult to talk to people nowadays without them having their faces glued on their screens, or seeing their fingers swipe across their phones. Many people like to pretend they have listening skills. Why? Because they have ears. They’re so far from actually having listening skills. In mid conversation they’re already preparing what to say, meaning the rest of the dialogue is meaningless. We have to challenge how we respond also. Giving advice is pretty shitty, actually, in close situations at least. It depends on the scale of it. I tend to not give advice to people when in face to face communication, as I prefer to listen and help them find answers to their own problems. Sometimes telling people what to do can be the worst option for them to choose. Don’t judge a person’s position. Never. Even if you’ve been in the situation before, you haven’t actually been in their ‘shoes’. Never assume you know how they feel. Never. All that will do is strip away the opportunity for the man to talk about his thoughts.
We all have different experiences of the same situation. We have to change our body language too. When you’re talking to someone who you can clearly tell isn’t interested in listening to you it’s a clear sign to drop the conversation and talk to a wall. No, in all honesty our body language can allow men in particular to express themselves. When people have phones in their hands… you don’t have their attention. When people are interrupting you… you don’t have their attention. When people are massively expressive of their face (for example, frowning because you have said something they disagree with, basically judging you) … you don’t have their attention.
I’m going to end this short blog post, as I believe short is sweet, by blowing everyone’s minds (and not in the Negan sense) with a startling new discovery. Regardless what’s between your legs, we all have feelings, thoughts, needs, desires, expectations, ambitions, fears, worries, dreams. These don’t change based on your sex. What does change is your perception of them. Do what the hell you want. Speak about what you want. Cry. Curl in a ball. Dance. Sing. Wear pink. Watch whatever you want. Think of yourselves like Christmas presents. Reveal yourself (though don’t take that too literally). If you want to talk about your feelings go ahead and do it. There’s no shame in it. Become a champion and be a pillar of encouragement for other men to face their problems by talking about them.
Ah, well, I can’t exactly just finish like that. I mean, you might be saying ‘I don’t have friends that will listen to me.’ ‘I don’t feel comfortable in doing that’. ‘I don’t want to upset my partner’. If you can listen to people talk about how they feel, it’s most likely they can listen to you talk about yours. If you feel stigmatized with doing something seen as feminine (and I’ve had my fair share of those feelings too, I’m making candles at the moment, and almost every website shows female stall owners) just go ahead and do what you enjoy. You cannot let people control what you do or how you feel. I encourage you to speak to a counsellor. Your friends. Family. I encourage you to go further and speak about men’s issues in the pubs and buses and community. Big change is often achieved with little steps. My friends and family know that I will speak about my thoughts. And will listen to them.
I have never thought about suicide. I’ve not known anyone in close relationship to me to do suicide. However, I’ve heard hundreds of people who are hurting over losing someone to suicide. I’ve had communication with people who have been in the process of doing so. I regularly engage on mental health forums to talk to people. To give them the security that someone is listening to them without judgement. I’m in the process of joining Samaritans, and training as a counsellor next year. If my purpose in life is to help reduce the deaths of men (and anyone in particular, mind you) then that is my duty. If you want to talk to me, no matter how trivial you think it is, male or female, please do so. You’ll never be alone as long as I’m around. Message me via the contact form.
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Perhaps we should start projects and get people involved? What do you think? Hit me up if you’re interested. I’m based in the UK. Leeds.