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The Man Bible and Male Suicide

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What struck me when I launched CALM was that a) men, and particularly young men, were seen as the source of so many problems and b) that's a huge amount of effort given over towards trying to moderate their behaviour and 'teach them or train them' into behaving better. Or simply in by-passing them. Whether the issue is drugs, violence, teenage sex, vandalism, crime or gang culture. Clearly they aren't listening to the messages. Indeed boys tend not to listen even in class, and as they get older, they still aren't listening to health or education messages, nor the pleadings of wives and mothers.

So I wondered what were they were hearing, what messages they were getting instead? Because suicide is about is when you no longer believe you've anything to live for, when you believe that you can't fulfil what's expected of you, or what you want for yourself. It's when the road runs out. And curiously, despite rocketing figures of suicide at the time among young men (not women), the problem was portrayed by the media, by government, by health professionals, as a problem with 'young people'. And suicide among older people (which for factual purposes please read a 75% male phenomena), suicide wasn't seen as a problem. This I believe tells us something about society's attitude not just to suicide, but also to men.

We are double blind to the issue, we've our fingers in our ears when suicide is mentioned, and this wanton deafness pops up when it comes to our attitudes towards men being weak. Better to blank both issues, most particularly when the two combine. And so we have a society where suicide accounts for the lives of more men aged 20-49 than any other single cause. Bigger than heart disease. Bigger than road deaths. I write this having watched Newsnight bemoan the 68 deaths a year from illegal highs, or around one death a week. By comparison 12 UK male deaths a day should warrant a series.

So, back to perspective. Whose issue is suicide? The Time to Change approach is that we should all put on hats casting ourselves as service users, ideally with all with moderate to severe mental health issues. This is certainly the direct approach. The problem with this I believe is that that it's over-simplistic. Whilst male faces adorn the ads, the campaign doesn't account for gender. Whilst I believe the campaign has changed attitudes, I wonder among whom? In 2009 75% of all suicides were male, male suicide now stands at 77% of all suicides - and we're seeing a rise in middle aged and older men, who I'm sure have seen the ads. So why aren't they listening?

Or maybe they are listening, maybe boys and men are listening hard to the messages they get from the rest of society. Maybe the problem here isn't just all down to them, maybe the rest of society plays a part in this drama too. We live in a society which for decades has revered the 'strong and silent type' of man, a Hollywood era, stretching from John Wayne through to Clint Eastwood, James Bond and bucket loads of lantern jawed ripped males good with fists, able to convey meaning through the simple narrowing of eyes. Very few male heroes over the decades are known for emoting. And whilst women have kicked hard back at female stereotypes, frankly men have been a bit slack on examining their own cage. Although I'm coming to appreciate how hard that is.

What if the message all men are getting is that it's unmanly to be weak; that it's unmanly to talk about feelings, that man and boy you are never supposed to be emotional (unless you feel anger, or unless you're at a football match). What if there's an unwritten bible out there about the kinds of work real men are supposed to do, and the kind of work they should never touch. There was such a bible 30 years ago for women, and we ripped it up. I think there is such an unwritten bible for men, covering everything from dress code through to parenting and work, and its First Commandment, for All Men, reads "Thou shalt not talk". Commandment number Two reads "Thou shalt not be weak". So, whatever is wrong don't talk about it, and don't be weak. In such a scenario hitting something hard wouldn't be seen as weakness but as anger. And if rule number one is don't talk, then that clearly rules out getting help (because that would be admitting weakness = womanly.

And that's my point, shouting at men to listen up is no good until we smash the tablet of stone, and that tablet is kept aloft by our media, by women looking for the strong and silent-type man who'll look after them and mend the fuse, and by those very men who are so damaged by the message and yet aren't given the space to be anything other than slabs of meat. Encouraging them to face up to 'mental health' issues is, at this juncture, not helpful. We need to pick another angle.

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