Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK. I have read this statistic often. I watched a running race in July in London where a mental health charity was represented and held banners opposite Charing Cross station, to this effect. ONS data* tells us that male suicide was more than three times the rate of female suicide and that the most common method of suicide in 2014 was hanging with 55% of men choosing this.
The statistics are horrendous, the images conjured, horrific. But what isn't explained by either is why a man would take his own life or what can be done to prevent it.
It is easy and possibly lazy to knee jerk a response that says men are more likely to commit suicide because they don't talk so openly, cry so easily and visit the doctor so often. These factors may or may not be true and significant. Look at the fact that the North East has the highest suicide rate in England at 13.2 deaths per 100,000 population, with the lowest being in London at 7.8 per 100,000 and it is tempting to draw the conclusion that traditionally this is tough, industrial heartland full of burly men who don't 'share' feelings and maybe those London dwellers are a little more adept at cracking open the pinot and pouring their heart out to their nearest and dearest. Again, there may or may not be an element of this, but I cannot believe that any of these stereotypes and preconceptions tell the whole story about this tragic state of being.
The Huffington Post UK has launched a campaign that I wholeheartedly welcome called 'Building Modern Men'. In the launch piece, Editor-in-chief Stephen Hull, discusses how about 12 men per day are committing suicide. That needs to be stressed, underlined and highlighted, he said a day. Not a week, not a month but one that equates to about every couple of hours. He also goes on to say that the aim of the series is to start a conversation about solutions and this I eagerly endorse.
The title of this series triggered in me the firmly held belief that any attempt to build a modern man must incorporate building a modern boy. Declaring my interest, I am the mother of a daughter and son, both primary age with less than two years between them. The difference in how they are treated and talked to by the modern world never ceases to astound me. My son is openly emotional, but at the grand old age of 8 I hear him being told to be a 'big brave boy' if he cries and have seen eyes roll when he wails. He was told recently by another boy that writing stories is 'silly' and he should be playing video games. Talking to a teacher and a doctor friend, both shared the private view that there still exists, in some primary schools, an unacceptable disparity with how boys and girls are treated and talked to. I remember at toddler groups seeing my daughter picking up a stethoscope and being asked if she'll be a nurse when she grows up but my son picked up the same toy and got asked if he'll be a doctor. My daughter is apparently not a 'girly girl' and must be a tomboy because she can't abide pink or that song from 'Frozen'. 'Man Up!', 'Grow a Pair', 'Be a Man!, are all still common parlance. Films, music, advertising, video games, so many of them bombard children with images and language that reinforce an over-sexualised, narrow view of what it is to be female and a misogynistic idea of masculinity.
The solutions to erasing the stigma and tackling the awful rates of male suicide in the UK are many, varied and complex and a many pronged strategy needs to be developed at all levels from government, education, health, third sector, the media, within families and communities and beyond. The intricacies and complexities are far reaching and wide ranging. But it is my firm belief that as part of it, we must look at how we are raising our children. We need to look at the language we use, the expectation we project upon them, the opportunities they are offered. We need to spend time developing their resilience, emotions, perceptions, self image, self esteem and crucially, look at how they are encouraged and enabled to interact with and understand each other. They are not separate species to be treated with suspicion and stereotyped. They are the ones upon whom we can affect a real impact. This impact can be negative and perpetuate this cycle or it can be positive and start to make a real difference in how we deal with this issue.
* Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0
HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.
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