When it comes to understanding male suicide, we need to overturn everything we think we know about it. Most of the cases aren’t the obvious at-risk person – the one who’s always struggled with life.
The truth of the matter, says Jane Powell, director of men’s charity CALM, is that these men are most likely to be the life and soul of a party, the ones who banter all the time. And she should know – CALM is dedicated to bringing suicide rates among men down.
“Your typical suicide isn’t someone who’s morally weak, a bit of a failure, never going to cope. It is likely to be someone who is well loved, who has millions of mates. And we need to come to grips with that now,” she said to HuffPost UK Lifestyle.
The news that the male suicide rate is the worst it has been for 14 years according to the ONS, while female suicide decreases, suggests that something is very wrong in how men are perceived culturally, and the pressure it exacts.
It indicates a desperate, urgent need to identify the problem and change the conversation we are having around men.
“We’ve reached the point where 78% of suicides are male and the fact it has gone down in women tells us it’s not biological,” adds Powell.
“There is a very large cultural element to this issue. And what we’ve seen since the 80s is a large cultural change in the way women can be, and how their work defines them. But what we’ve also seen is not much change about how men are supposed to be.
“Women have claimed and insisted that we are emotional ones, we’re nurturers, we’re good communicators and by definition what men are is the opposite of that. And what has happened is that the ground upon which men stand has become a lot smaller in terms of how they can be.”
Although there is a lot that needs to be done around making the world a fairer place for women and to stamp out violence against women, there is a solid argument that this doesn’t have to be at the expense of men. Powell says that the world has changed for women in some great ways, but it hasn’t changed for men in the same way.
“There has been no push back and any push back there has been is greeted with enormous disdain – like ‘get back in your box’.”
She’s right. When we tweeted about International Men’s Day, there was an awful lot of bile about how men didn’t deserve such an event, despite the main emphasis around mental health and marginalised males.
What is perhaps most unsettling is that male suicide arises from quite ordinary circumstances.
Neil Shah, director of Stress Management Society spoke to us about what contributes to a person reaching the point when they would take their own life.
“More and more people are getting to the point of overwhelm due to the increased demands and pressures of modern life, and sadly for many people this results in a specific incident being the straw that breaks the camel’s back. When faced with the myriad of challenges and demands many of have to cope with on a daily basis, more people are driven to the stage where they collapse under excessive pressure.”
While there are conversations around societal roles – for instance more men are now showing up to school gates and offering to be the stay-at-home parent, it is still a hard situation. Women can give up work to look after their children and take time off from work, and they are nurtured for that. Men, by contrast almost always worry about losing face.
Almost all of it boils down to the definition of a man, and in the same way that women proactively started to change the conversation around their roles by going into the workforce, demanding the vote and equal pay, men need to do the same.
“We still have very fixed ideas around gender and that makes it really hard if you have things in your life that toxic,” says Powell.
“If you’re not able to talk about it or look at them and thrash it out, it’s hard. If we are going to be serious about tackling suicide, we have to be serious about what that means.”
The symptoms are also not the most obvious ones.
Powell says they include someone “getting consistently, really, really drunk, behaving badly, taking risks, taking lots of drugs.”
Shah adds that being unable to cope with minor challenges is also one – so maybe it’s your mate who still acts the lad despite being in their 30s or 40s.
If you do identify with any of this, he says that the most practical thing you can do is to find out if your employer provides an Employee Assistance Programme or call The Samaritans.
“As much as seeking the ultimate permanent solution to a temporary problem is an option, there are many, many other ways to deal with the things that are overwhelming you,” he says.
But mostly, consider that guy you think to be Mr Popular.
Powell says poignantly: “When you see someone getting drunk night after night, being the great joke maker, sit down and find a bit of space with them. Allowing him to talk, asking him how things are going, is the most important thing anyone can do. That can be life-changing.”
For more about the issues discussed here, visit CALM or call 0800 58 58 58. For the Samaritans, call the helpline on 08457 90 90 90 or visit the website. Visit the Stress Management Society here.