Male suicide rates are now at their highest point in the UK since 2001. The Office for National Statistics shows that in the past thirty years, the balance between male/female suicide rates has shifted from 63% male in 1981 to 78% male in 2013. Men are killing themselves at a rate that noticeably outstrips women, and it isn’t being addressed.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for men in England and Wales between the ages of 20 and 34. This is legitimately terrifying — there should never be any statistical body reporting that the lead cause of death for any demographic is self-inflicted — most frequently, by hanging.
The Silence Problem
Men are more at risk of committing suicide, states professor and chair of the National Suicide Prevention Advisory Group in England, Louis Appleby, because they are “reluctant to seek help”, in addition to being more prone to heavy drinking and self-harm. The problem isn’t going away, even internationally — every country in the world has seen male suicides outstrip female ones, and it’s because men are silent. Or, rather, they are trained to be.
The socialisation of men, it is important to understand, is based on homophobia, sexism and an incredible amount of pressure from media and peers who support these mindsets. From birth, you are told to be strong, to be unshakeable in the face of adversity, and never to display any kind of sensitivity or weakness, lest you be branded “gay”, “sad” or a variety of other disparaging prejudiced terms that ultimately boil down to “feminine, and thus, like a woman.” In short, men are being systematically taught to think that being open about their emotions and mental health is an engagement in identifying with a gender identity other than their own — that men don’t do this. Only women.
This is why feminists often face the issue of trying to teach men that the patriarchy is as damaging to men as it is to women — that it provides a cage for both gender identities, while damaging many more identities and demographics in addition. The patriarchy isn’t just an exclusive, privileged club for old boys — it’s also a regimented, strictly controlled concept of male identity that forces upon men the idea that their stoic silence is such an inherent part of who they are that its abandonment would mean their rejection from male social circles.
There are, however, expressions of male identity seen as acceptable by our patriarchal society, such as anger, the hatred and disparagement of women, homophobia, and lad culture. It’s easy to see it everywhere — even other male feminists I know have a habit of addressing a diverse audience of peers as “lads” or “chaps”, thus completely excluding women from discussion without even realising that’s what’s happening. But these expressions of male identity are, to a number, toxic and self-destructive. There are no positive outlets here — only ones that further an existing problem.
Men are taught that they have a Breaking Point, and that this Breaking Point involves anything from a bar brawl to domestic violence. Problematic media teaches us that we are, as men, to accept the idea that being a Strong Man means that eventually, our tempers will run short of the problem at hand, and we will lash out in some way — forever justified by concepts like the Provocative Woman and That Lad That Mouthed Off Too Many Times. Men are taught that violence is conflict resolution, and that uncorking themselves and venting and defusing is something that happens when it cannot be stopped, not when it can.
Mental health’s biggest challenge is to get people to talk — to stop silence. Silence is death. Silence is self-harm. Silence is smiling through your pain, and in the UK it’s a big problem — our Stiff Upper Lip has integrated itself into the patriarchal rulebook to the point at which masculinity has become nearly irreparably linked to containing suicide-risk mental health issues within our own skulls. We’re silent, and thus, we’re dying.
Toxic Resources Need to Go
The biggest issue we face, as men, is pushing past the fear of self-expression enough to engage in healthy discussion of our stresses, fears and trauma. I’m fortunate in that I don’t identify as straight — I left that identity behind and thus feel less attached to the toxic concept of the male identity than your average straight man. But it’s straight men, I think, that face this problem the most — homophobic stereotypes of LGBTQ+ males are forced upon young straight men to a point where venting healthily, engaging with fashions, music genres, or even colours they personally and instinctively enjoy is an abandonment or dangerous warping of their identities. It isn’t just gay men who have a reason to fear another homophobic fatal beating in the news — straight men are being taught that this is the consequence of stepping outside the cookie-cutter template the patriarchy has set out for them.
If you take a look at the advice on suicide warning signs the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP) provides, you’ll notice that it leads with analysing someone discussing suicide or depressive thinking. This is problem number one, regarding suicidal men — we’re trained not to talk, and thus a major source of warning signs for those who care about us are completely useless. So we need to address the problem — not talking — rather than attempt to fill in the gaps with guesses and prodding.
I’ve had friends, male friends, who are able to talk about a history of suicidal ideation. I’ve also had male friends who would, frankly, rather keep silent about it, even if the signs are so glaringly obvious it’s difficult not to panic as they obsess about death in public at two in the morning. So how do we break this wall down?
The first important step is to erase the destructive myth that the differences between men and women mentally, including toxic masculinity preventing men from expressing themselves properly, is something to be celebrated. This “men are from Mars” thinking needs to be eradicated if we’re going to enable men to discuss their mental health.
But it’s society and the media that reinforce these concepts the most, and it’s those two areas we need to cover. We need to address the mental health benefits and positive masculinity of men expressing themselves, whether it’s social media discussion or the narrative of a TV show.
What isn’t helping is toxic posts like this eHarmony advice piece that suggests that men and women are simply “wired” differently, and that women should endlessly cater to the emotional shortcomings of men in order to avoid conflict. This isn’t productive — you’re treating the symptoms, and not the actual illness itself, and I am shocked and disappointed that a dating site would propagate such antiquated views on male-female relationships. This and the lack of outside-the-box thinking on the ASFP site are making things worse — people are being provided with suicide advice that isn’t applying to the toxic situation suicidal men are finding themselves in.
Smash the Padlock, and Survive
If you’re reading this and you’re a man, please listen to me — I saved my own life by finally just talking about things. I went from internalising everything, including my own social anxiety, depression, and severe OCD, to the point of what felt like complete instability, to becoming calmer, more collected and healthier.
But this isn’t solely about coming out about your mental health to your friends at the pub — there are actual, professional, free resources on the NHS that you can make use of. If you’d prefer private, that’s fine too — just know that medical professionals are people who can help you more, and everything is confidential. You can be healed while taking small steps towards being more open about how you feel outside the therapist’s room.
Below is a picture of my progress on high-intensity cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), over about six months. I was being treated for severe OCD and moderate depression. I have a history of suicidal ideation and life-altering compulsive behaviour. I am telling you this in front of the entire internet, and I am a man. Now let me show you my progress. The columns were different tests I took before each session to gauge stuff like depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.
See the numbers drop? This wasn’t because I was talking to my peers, or my girlfriend — this was because I was talking to a therapist who was able to suggest and engage in constructive behaviour I could use to fix myself. My depression wasn’t successfully treated to the same degree as my OCD, but this is because I was focusing on OCD during this period — but my depression was more manageable once I completed this course.
It is important that men understand that there are safe spaces for them to express themselves and receive help. While men are encouraged by society to never show weakness even in the face of physical injury, the average man will still go to hospital for surgery, or a broken leg. But society has constructed an image of mental health as immaterial for so long that we don’t treat it the same way — we don’t see depression as worthy of the same level of medical treatment as any other ongoing illness. When an illness is left untreated, it can go from irksome to fatal in a matter of months, and mental health issues are no different. Men aren’t seeking help for their heads, even when they’re metaphorically bleeding out.
Your Sword is for Fighting, Not for Falling On
One of the key worries, I find, for men engaged in toxic concepts of what masculinity is, is the idea that they are somehow more brave because they don’t talk about their depression. That their unwillingness to express themselves, even when it could save their lives, is somehow a sign of a hero, of a man who should be looked up to, because he never faltered.
Listen to me, men: you are not holding a trench in the First World War. You have depression.
These two things are not the same, and it frustrates me that I need to iterate this. Silence is not bravery, when it comes to mental health. Silence will isolate you. When people are asking you what’s wrong, yes, there is the risk that your honest answer will trigger a series of toxic comments such as “cheer up mate” or “let it go” or “don’t be so dramatic.” They do happen, and I’m saying this before you tell me it happens. I know it does.
But there are people who will listen, who aren’t medical staff. Create safe spaces in groups of friends as much as you can — people who care about you and who engage in positive, progressive thinking regarding mental health will listen to you, and if you need to prioritise engaging with them over those who are stoically the opposite, then do so. If you were to attend therapy, or vent to your friends, or find ways to improve your situation, whatever those ways may be, you may find that the following will happen.
The Secret Club of Male Self-Help Enthusiasts
I find that men tend to reach out to me quite a bit for mental health advice, because I do a lot of talks that centre around my experiences with it, and I’m a public advocate for mental health support and education. Quite frequently the conversations begin cautiously, similar to the way in which people on television enquire as to whether they can purchase Definitely Not Drugs. “I was wondering, like, if you knew what to do in this situation.”
These conversations are common, and important. Men talk to other men about gender-specific issues, and the same can be said of women. But with men, one of those gender-specific issues appears to be the unique way in which they deal with mental health problems. Being open to these discussions and having resources and advice on hand can make a huge difference to men, and once they are further down the path with their own healing process, other men can turn to them. It spreads. Things get better.
Some men have a habit of discussing issues related to their dicks with their friends who have identical genitals. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Such a personal topic, and yet, one they’re willing to delve into, whether it’s crabs, or cleaning habits, or simply the smell of sweaty balls. But they won’t discuss mental health. This is again, due to the society we live in — dicks are celebrated more than any other body part in the history of the human race. We build giant dicks with windows in that people use for office space. Media caters to dicks and their (non-existent) right to go into Things That Are Not Dicks. We have dick-shaped pasta. Dick lollipops. Dicks.
But what we don’t have is the equivalent for something just as personal — our emotions and mental health. There are no positive, engaging mental health jokes. There are few positive representations of mental health in media that cater to men who need help. Breaking Bad is a wonderful show, but it’s a show about men who are completely incapable of discussing their weaknesses, to the point where a man creates a meth empire rather than ask his friends to pay for his cancer treatment. The myth of the Strong But Dying Man is everywhere, and we’re not countering it well enough.
But men will quietly ask each other questions about their dicks, about their girlfriends, about how best to propose. These are little windows into the genuine and justifiably fragile cores of who these men are, and we need to open another into their depression.
You Have a Mouth, Please Scream
To bring this to something of a close, it worries me that men are killing themselves in droves, quite frequently for completely avoidable reasons. It worries me that we live in a society where people are conflating “leave me some ammunition and go on without me” in action films with someone refusing to discuss their depression out of fear to the point where they’re found by friends in a bathroom two weeks later. Men are terrifying creatures with an increasingly documented habit of killing women, gay men, animals and other men they don’t like. But we need to start documenting the fact that there’s a 24% chance that death for a young man in England and Wales will come at his own hand.
Being depressed, being suicidal, even, is not a strength, nor is it a weakness. It simply is, in the same way a cold inhabits us in winter. When I go through bad phases with depression and anxiety, I sit down in the shower, under the warm water, for about half an hour (I’d stay in there for hours but plumbing is rarely accommodating to this), or I’ll eat an entire tub of ice cream. I binge eat a lot, and it’s destructive, and scary.
But if this was all I did — if I only ever, as a man, did these things in secret and never told anyone how I felt, there’s a chance I’d be dead by now. There’s a chance I’d never have met the person I’m going to marry, or their daughter. There’s a chance my parents would’ve had to bury me — and as someone who has watched a mother bury her son after he walked into a train tunnel, there is no more torturous and unjust sight in my memory.
Men do things because they want to be strong. To not die. To live. So talk. Seek help. Even quietly. Push back against stereotypes and prejudice that keep men silent. This goes for everyone, not just men. Cancer is not the biggest killer of men, but out of that and suicide, the balance of charity runs appears to be completely in favour of tumours. Let’s fix this. Let’s overturn the patriarchy and save as many men as women. Love yourselves, men. This dark cloud day isn’t all there is. I love you.