I was standing on the beach looking at a naked dead guy.
I had been called to the scene as a Police Officer, and the man had washed up overnight, to be found by dog walkers that morning. He had drowned himself.
The thing that sticks in my mind 20 years later is that before he took the long walk into eternity, he had stripped naked and left his clothes in a neatly folded pile in a nearby bus shelter.
Such attention to detail while despair is beckoning you into the dark sea.
This, and many similar cases I came across as a Police Officer and a Samaritan volunteer, has left me asking the question, “What can we do about male suicide?”
How big is the problem?
Suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under 50, and around three-quarters of deaths from suicides, each year are men.
Some sobering stats from the World Health Organisation:
- More than 700 000 people die due to suicide every year.
- For every suicide, many more people attempt suicide. A prior suicide attempt is the most critical risk factor for suicide in the general population.
- Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29 year-olds.
- 77% of global suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
1. Factors that contribute to male suicide.
Men are expected to be strong and independent. Even now, there’s a stigma attached to men seeking help, especially when struggling with mental health issues.
On the surface, society and religion preach to “turn the other cheek.” They claim real strength is found in walking away from conflict.
At the same time, we also worship tough men stereotypes like Rocky Balboa and James Bond.
When it comes to men finding love, the conflict is most apparent. A case in point — Police Officers and Nightclub bouncers.
Many women throw themselves at Cops and bouncers. Something about a strong protective man who can handle himself appeals to their baser instincts.
A non-traditional or effeminate man struggles to even get to first base.
As a society, we must figure out what to expect of men and be honest about it. Men won’t come forward to get help if they’re made to feel like cowards and society’s messages are mixed and unconvincing.
Alcohol and drug abuse are significant risk factors for suicide in men.
Most people who kill themselves don’t do it because of one single reason. Humans are good at coping when disasters come along one at a time, with space in between to process what’s happening.
You might suffer a bereavement, but the rest of the family supports you. You also have a house, a steady job, etc. So you can focus on this singular pain point.
The risk of suicide rockets up if, using the above example, you suffer a bereavement, then lose your job, then your house, then you get sick, and then someone else dies.
Now you have no idea what to focus on first. The pain floods your brain in knots, and you can’t untangle them. Where would you start?
Many people turn to substance abuse to try and deaden a pain they cannot begin to unravel. In the case of alcohol, they temporarily numb themselves, but alcohol is a depressant.
They wake up the next morning feeling worse.
They become addicted and sick.
All the old problems and pain are still there, and your last bit of self-worth has died at the bottom of a bottle.
A breakup or divorce can be a significant trigger for suicidal thoughts in men. They feel a sense of failure or a loss of control.
It’s not just the immediate consequence of the divorce and the pain of losing your soul mate.
Maybe you’ll lose the house. Many homeless people are divorced men.
Maybe you lose access to your children.
You may lose half of your net worth in the blink of an eye.
Those couples you thought were friends stop contacting you as it’s become awkward.
You don’t just lose a relationship. You lose your identity and feel you wasted all that time.
Employment and financial stress.
Men feel intense pressure to provide for their families and have successful careers. Women are attracted to men with purpose and ambition — men going places.
Many men’s entire identity is linked to their occupation.
My goal was to be a Police Officer until I retired. Unfortunately, retirement came at age 27 due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The loss of my job and future ambition sent me into a depression that lasted many years and culminated with a stay in a triple-locked-door mental hospital.
I hit rock bottom and spent every day hoping for the sweet release of death.
Eventually, I turned the corner and found a whole new focus. But some men don’t or can’t wait that long.
I must mention that assessing suicide risk is complex and influenced by various factors. However, addressing the abovementioned risk factors can help prevent suicide and steer the conversation in the right direction.
But how to address these risk factors?
2. Strategies for preventing male suicide at the societal level.
Encouraging help-seeking behaviors.
We have discussed why men don’t seek help, so our first step is encouraging men to seek help when needed.
This can be achieved by promoting mental health resources and education campaigns that destigmatize mental illness.
The following are excellent resources in several countries to help men come forward and talk about their feelings. These are tailored suicide prevention programs for men:
Man Therapy: Man Therapy is a national campaign in the United States that uses humor and masculinity to encourage men to seek help for mental health issues. The campaign features a website offering mental health resources and encouraging men to undergo anonymous mental health screening.
Men’s Sheds: Men’s Sheds are community spaces in Australia designed to promote social connections and support among men. The sheds provide a space where men can work on projects together and participate in social activities, such as BBQs and game nights.
CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably): CALM is a suicide prevention charity in the UK that targets men. The charity offers a helpline, webchat, and information resources for men struggling with mental health issues. The charity also promotes awareness of male suicide and works to reduce the stigma around mental health.
Movember: Movember is a global charity that raises awareness of men’s health issues, including suicide prevention. The charity encourages men to grow mustaches during November to raise awareness and funds for men’s health initiatives. The charity also funds research and support programs for men’s mental health.
These fantastic programs and campaigns show what’s possible when we come together to tackle problems as societies.
We need to let men know they are strong but human. If the current help methods are not bringing them forward, we need to find strategies that will.
“Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder.”
Australian Men’s Shed Association
The quicker you identify a mental health or emotional problem leading to suicidal ideation, the better.
Early intervention aims to stop the pain before it escalates. Methods to do so include routine mental health screening and early intervention programs.
When I was first diagnosed with Schizophrenia, I was referred to the “Early Intervention in Psychosis” team. These teams send a medical practitioner to visit each patient weekly to help with medication and talk.
They also provide group outings, sports, and chances to meet people and get out in the community.
It doesn’t have to be as severe as Schizophrenia. There are other early intervention programs for substance abuse, depression, and
3. Supporting loved ones.
As well as at a societal level, we can all pay attention to our loved ones and people in our community.
As families and friends, we can significantly improve our loved one’s mental health and suicidal ideation.
If you have love and support, you can overcome many things that would crush you if you were alone.
We need to open up to each other as a first step and stop being afraid of the S word (suicide).
You CANNOT put the idea of suicide into someone’s head just by discussing it. If anything, it’s a relief to get it out in the open because many people still see the subject as taboo.
As a Samaritan, I had to ask every caller if they were suicidal, regardless of the topic of the call and how silly it sounded.
I remember a man called at midnight, annoyed that his friend had forgotten to get him a birthday present. It sounded petty, but I asked the magic question, “Has this made you feel suicidal?”
After a short pause, he replied that it had. The issue went much deeper than the present. His birthday had highlighted his loneliness and isolation. It had put a spotlight on how no one cared about him.
Did I save his life? I’ve no idea. We talked for about 30 minutes in the middle of the night, and he seemed calmer, but you never know what happens when the phone goes down.
If you’re caring for someone with mental health problems and suicidal ideation, you MUST also look after yourself.
Too many carers run themselves into the ground, sacrificing their own lives to care for their loved ones. Not only is this destructive to the carer, but the person suffering mental health problems isn’t blind — they can see what you’re doing, and it adds guilt to all their other problems.
Set aside time each week for you. Allow someone else to care for your loved one, or even pay a professional.
If you don’t look after yourself, you’ll be unable to help anyone else.
Take care of yourself as a priority.
Male suicide is a multi-layered problem that we must confront at both the societal and personal levels.
Identify the problem at the early stages to get the best results. Make it so that the men you know feel safe to discuss their issues without judgment.
Encourage any man you know to consider one of the professional programs mentioned, such as men’s sheds. Find something similar in your area.
If no professional programs are near you, how about starting one yourself?
Finally, if you suspect someone you know may be suffering, ask them about suicide. We need to end this taboo. You cannot implant the idea in someone. Talking about suicide doesn’t make anyone suicidal — quite the opposite.
Don’t leave it until the first source of outside help you get is someone like me guarding a naked, dead guy on the beach.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Erwann Letue on Unsplash
Fantastic article, thanks for sharing this Leon. I recently started hosting a Mens Shed program in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada and supporting men’s mental health is definitely an ulterior motive behind starting our Shed. I ran across a link to your article in the Mens Shed Across the World weekly newsletter.