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We have entered a new pandemic – only this time, it does discriminate between genders. As Suicide Prevention Month rolls around once again, the statistics surrounding men’s mental health continue to look as bleak as ever.
For men under 50 in the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death. In the US, the suicide rate among men is four times higher than it is for women. The recent US-wide suicide prevention hotline was introduced with good intentions. However, this is yet another example of a generalized approach to this issue that is failing to take into account gender-specific needs. Traditional conceptions of masculinity are one of the many barriers currently obstructing men from getting the assistance they need. Rather than simply bemoaning men’s reluctance to seek help, we need a multi-faceted, society-wide approach that meets them where they are. This must involve government strategies, private sector collaboration, along with assuming personal ownership around one’s pain and trauma as well as individual education and coaching.
This problem has become far too widespread and deep-rooted to be ignored any longer. Men now account for around 80% of all deaths by suicide. Similarly, high figures are seen across the UK, the US, Canada and Australia, where suicide kills six men every single day, and is the leading killer of men and boys under 45.
What adds to the nefariousness of this global crisis is the fact that not only is suicide more prevalent for men, but it is also far more common amongst men in ethnic minorities. For instance, Native Americans have the highest suicide rates in the US, while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men are twice as likely to take their lives compared to non-indigenous men in Australia.
This is not for one minute to suggest that women are not also suffering from a global mental health crisis. Interestingly, studies show that women are actually twice as likely to have had suicidal thoughts than men. Yet this does not translate into the figures for the proportion of suicides committed.
The reason for this is tragically simple. For men, it is still a sign of weakness to seek help. There is an extraordinary pressure on men to be the best, and when they fall short of this, this leads to feelings of a lack of self-worth and hollowed-out self-esteem.
A pivotal reason why these suicide figures are higher for men than women can be found in the inefficiency of current suicide prevention measures. These revolve around two key strategies: identifying people planning suicide, and providing follow-up care for those who have already attempted to take their lives.
These measures are failing. Fewer than 1 in 5 men had contact with mental health professionals in the year leading up to their suicide, and 60% of male victims had no documented mental health conditions. This reluctance to seek help means they continue to slip under the radar of authorities. Secondly, nearly three-quarters of men who take their own lives do so at the first attempt, leaving no possibility for follow-up care.
This problem is multi-dimensional, and the solution must also be multi-faceted. Crucially, we must not criticize or blame men for not wanting to open up about their struggles – this will not get us anywhere. Instead, we need to meet them where they are. One way of achieving this is through paying attention to situational distressors linked to suicide, such as relationship issues, work problems, financial trouble, etc., rather than only focusing on men that have a recorded history of mental health conditions. What can be of great service to men is creating deliberate spaces where men can be witnessed in their expressive pain and emotions by other men in non-judgmental and compassionate ways. Being witnessed by another man can be healing and transformative as many men have not experienced healthy rites of passage from boyhood to manhood and have lacked adult male mentorship.
Similarly, the government, private sector and individuals must all work together to introduce measures that are sensitive to male traits. A blueprint for this can be seen in the case of construction workers in Queensland, Australia. Suicide rates in this predominantly male sector are 71% higher than other industries. To tackle this, Queensland introduced “MATES in Construction”, which takes a unique, strength-based approach to the situation. It zeroes in on the masculine quality of wanting to help others and provide support, rather than being the one that is in need of support. By creating an environment where help-giving is a norm, those same men helping their peers are in turn encouraged to open up about their own struggles. Prior to this initiative, Queensland had the fourth highest rate of construction suicides; since it was brought in, it now has the lowest rate across Australia.
In tandem with this, governments and private organizations need to reshape the way in which we educate boys about mental health. Support needs to be provided to parents and teachers in the form of counseling services, coaching and curriculum enhancements.
After having some of the worst suicide rates in Europe, Finland rolled out a highly successful nationwide suicide prevention strategy. In 2019, the Scandinavian county was crowned “the world’s happiest country” by the UN. Its methodology centered on psychological and social factors behind suicides, rather than taking a symptomatic approach that only comes into action once an individual has either started planning to take their own life or has already attempted to do this. Especially given the effectiveness and the extremely low cost of Finland’s program, there is no reason why we should not see similar programs introduced across the rest of Europe, the U.S. and Australia.
This Suicide Prevention Month has to signify more than previous years. It’s not the load that breaks us down, but how we carry it. Men are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders without any help. It is acknowledged that the way this load is carried is a combination of societal expectations and norms, alongside a self-imposed need to prove that as men we are capable that we must be responsible for. Excessive addiction to this can lead to overwhelm and low self-esteem. We need a multi-fronted series of measures in order to both ease their burden and better equip them for managing their load. Every day we put this off, another 105 men die from suicide. The time for systemic action is now, and not a minute later.
About the author:
Stefanos Sifandos is an entrepreneur and relationship coach who has worked for over two decades in the personal development/transformation and self-help space.
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