Men – It’s Time We Talked About Suicide | World Mental Health Day
Every single week in the UK 84 men complete suicide. Think about that for five minutes. Every time you leave for work at 7am on a Monday morning, by the same time next Monday, 84 lives, which could have amounted to so much, will have ended.
The Importance of Words
In 2017, 75% of all UK suicides were male. As a society we need to create a culture in which men feel able to discuss the issues and societal pressures which are afflicting them, before the pain they are feeling inside leads them to end their own life, which they conclude is worthless. Reflecting on his own experience in GQ, British novelist and journalist, Matt Haig writes,
When you ask someone about the issues they are facing, they no longer have to face these issues alone. The knowledge that a friend or family member cares about their struggles, and is willing to help them through these difficulties, provides invaluable and often life-saving support to those contemplating suicide.
Jonny Benjamin MBE, mental health campaigner, began actively working to persuade men to open-up about any feelings of depression or suicidal thoughts they may be experiencing, by uploading vlogs detailing his own mental health struggles to a YouTube channel which now has over 11,000 subscribers. That’s 11,000 other men who have not only been encouraged to openly discuss their mental health, but who have been provided with some excellent coping strategies to help them as they recover from any struggles they may be facing, thanks to Jonny’s videos.
Sometimes men need to visit a safe space, where they can openly express everything they are feeling to ears they know will be sympathetic, in order to openly chat about their mental health. Recognising this reality and based on research that men are more likely to visit their barber than their GP, Torquay barber Tom Chapman established The Lions Barber Collective. The #barbertalk initiative launched by this partnership of barbers offers training to colleagues, so that they can identify clients who may be suffering from depression and sign-post them to relevant charities. This campaign has gained massive traction online. Having started in Torquay, The Lions Barber Collective now stretches to Wailuku, Hawaii offering crucial and much-appreciated support to each client who seeks it.
As well as discussing the issues which affect men throughout the country, it is crucial that we follow these conversations up with action to change a culture in which many men feel unable to express how they feel and overwhelmed by societal pressure to conform to a certain type of masculinity. These include:
32% of men who suffer from mental ill-health attribute these struggles to work-based stress. The obligation to constantly hit new KPIs, constantly work longer hours, often without a commensurate increase in pay; missing kids’ birthdays, school events and award ceremonies in order to pay for the mortgage and other bills is damaging mens’ mental health.
The study from which the above figure is drawn was carried out by Mind and surveyed 15,000 across the UK who worked for 30 different companies, some of which are among the largest companies in the world. Accounting giants Deloitte, as well as soft drinks conglomerate PepsiCo took part in the study.
Employers urgently need to engage with their staff, and spot the signs of mental ill-health, so that they can support team members’ recoveries, before this ill-health deteriorates into suicidal thoughts.
Companies have given employees access to gyms to improve their physical health for many years. Now businesses are beginning to integrate programmes to support their staff’s mental health and wellbeing into their office cultures. Mental health first aid training programmes are readily available to businesses. These courses are often specifically tailored to give line-managers and HR teams the tools they need to identify employees who are struggling with their mental health and provide them with the support they need to recover.
Providing a great example of businesses looking after their employees’ mental health, a creative digital marketing agency based in Brighton dedicates 5% of all profits to a health and wellbeing fund. Staff can spend the whole of this fund on activities which will provide them with the work-life balance they need to be free from stress. Every two weeks, this agency’s employees sit down with their manager and discuss how they are coping with their workload and life in general. This is not a high-pressure conversation which could result in termination if an employee gives the wrong answers to their manager’s questions. It is a check-in, designed to ensure that any struggles which an employee is going through are addressed before they cause that employee to suffer mental ill-health.
Reducing the pressurisation of office cultures across the UK can assist efforts to reduce male suicide, by reassuring men everywhere that difficulties at work do not constitute failures which render life no longer worth living.
Alcohol & Drugs
Further problems arise when men begin turning to drink to relieve their psychological pain. Turning to drink to numb emotions can further precipitate a crisis by delaying the ability to work through difficult feelings in a more constructive way. Worse, the chemical imbalance caused by alcohol consumption can increase your risk of depression according to research carried out by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. This means that if you drink to try to feel better when you feel low, you will feel even lower. If we are to help address some of the underlying issues leading to suicide, it is important that men are not encouraged to turn to alcohol for support when they feel depressed.
Research carried out by the suicide prevention charity Samaritans suggests that people are 8x more likely to die by suicide if they are under the influence of alcohol, compared to if they are sober.
This shocking statistic is indicative of a wider problem. A failure to reduce alcohol abuse will significantly reduce the success rate of suicide prevention strategies. The same can be said for wider substance abuse. 2016 saw 2,383 drug misuse deaths in the UK. This figure only accounts for deaths registered as occurring because of drug misuse, there could be many more which went unregistered. It is vital that we challenge a culture which normalises, and in some cases glorifies excessive consumption of alcohol and drugs. Instead, acting alongside the range of organisations and charities who work daily to prevent suicide, we must reassure men everywhere alcohol and drugs will not assist their recovery from depression.
Unfortunately, there is another context in which substance abuse is taking the lives of our men; that of accidental deaths. Whether through drink-driving, tragic actions occurring due to lost inhibitions, or unexpected bodily reactions to substances, the consequences of alcohol and substance abuse can be fatal for the individuals concerned and devastating for their loved ones. Losing control of your ability to think critically and react to the world around you in a considered way puts your safety at risk.
Men have commonly experienced pressure to present a ‘macho’ image of physical fitness, sexual prowess and financial success throughout history. These pressures have been exacerbated considerably by the enormous increase in popularity of social media. Each day, young men around the country log on to sites such as Facebook and Instagram, to be bombarded with a highlight reel of their peers’ lives. These highlights (which often consist of staged pictures) only reinforce anxieties and feelings of loneliness felt by other social media users. A landmark study by the University of Copenhagen, gave these feelings of inadequacy a name, ‘Facebook Envy.’ Their study split 1095 subjects into two groups. One continued to use Facebook as normal. The other abstained from any use of Facebook for a week. This study produced dramatic results. Prior to abstaining from Facebook, 33% of subjects felt sad when they scrolled through their news feeds. After taking a break, only 22% of subjects experienced these negative feelings. Those who continued to use the site as normal did not experience this increase in happiness.
‘Facebook Envy’ is particularly worrying, because people are often alone when checking social media, meaning that anything they feel is internalised. Rather than asking friends how they genuinely feel and about how they are really living, people often assume that everything they see on social media is true. The number of followers, friends or likes that a person has then becomes a social currency, as it demonstrates them living the successful, ‘macho’ life that men are so often expected to live. Those who have the currency feel happy, rich and popular. Those who lack it can feel emotionally impoverished and depressed.
As a society we need to start having proper conversations with our friends again. When a mere post-like or comment quantifies as an acceptable and meaningful communication, people stop bothering to visit their friends in person and ask how they feel. Solitary tapping at our phone screens will only make mental health worse. We need to spend less time logged-in and spend more time with friends in real time if we are to combat this epidemic of male depression and suicide.
Scroll Free September is a fantastic campaign, recently introduced by the Royal Society For Public Health. This campaign encourages users to take a break from scrolling through their personal social media accounts throughout September. The Society hopes that this initiative will lead to people improving their face-to-face social interactions, their productivity, and their sleep patterns. The great thing about this campaign is that it does not demand social media users to go cold turkey for a whole month, although they can if they wish to. The RSPH encourages users to avoid social media at events with their friends, during the evenings, as they go to sleep or wake-up, or during the day. Just trying logging out and see if it makes you feel happier.
Fear Of Social Ostracisation
Men who publicly express their feelings can often face derision from their peers. It starts in school, where the word ‘gay’ is often used as an insult to mean ‘insufficiently manly.’ This ‘macho’ culture encourages the internalisation of feelings of depression and loneliness, which leads men to refuse to talk openly about their emotional wellbeing from an early age. This culture needs to change, as it is a major contributor to poor mental health in men across the UK. There should be no expected character mould in which men are supposed to fit. Enjoying pints, sport and sex with women, are not pre-requisites for masculinity. Society needs to let men everywhere know that they are accepted for who they are and that their lives are worth living, even if they do not follow a conventional pattern.
World Mental Health Day is the perfect opportunity to begin the conversations which will lead to the cultural change required to confront the epidemic of male suicide in the UK. Please ask one of your male friends to talk to you about their feelings today. That chat could literally be life-changing.
If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article, there are organisations that can help. Please find a list of useful contacts below:
If you feel the strong urge to harm yourself, consider the following;
MAKE AN APPOINTMENT TO SEE YOUR GP
Shame and fear often stop people experiencing suicidal thoughts from asking for help. GPs are experienced in assessing and helping you talk through these kinds of feelings, and can often follow-up by helping you arrange on-going support. Book a double slot with a GP you get on with at your practice, and give yourself time to talk.
This is a free number to call if you need help fast but it’s not a 999 emergency. They can direct you to your local crisis support services and can also offer health advice 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The Samaritans offer a safe place for you to talk any time you like – about whatever’s getting to you.
Call them on 116 123
Email them on firstname.lastname@example.org
Find your nearest branch – https://www.samaritans.org/branches
Papyrus – Prevention of young suicide
Call Hopeline UK: 0800 068 41 41
SMS: 07786 209697
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) provides some excellent online support to men experiencing suicidal thoughts here https://www.thecalmzone.net/help/get-help/
Their helpline is:
Nationwide – 0800 58 58 58
London – 0800 802 58 58
And in an emergency;
- Call 999
- Go to your nearest Accident and Emergency (A&E) and ask for help