The Blog

To Tackle Male Suicide, We Have to Change What It Means to Be a Man

We have a duty to help both the current and future generations of young men, and that duty entails not only talking, but also action. Men need to be taught to prioritise wellbeing over perceived strength, and this teaching needs to begin from the first day of their lives, not after a failed suicide attempt.

In the UK, every two hours a man kills himself. We all have a duty to change this, yet tackling the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 is no small feat. The factors that contribute to this tragic loss of life are almost inextricably tied up in our notions of what it is to be a man. These notions permeate the way men think, feel and behave towards themselves and others.

Young men of our generation are in a challenging position: the last forty years have seen a tremendous shift in the role of men in society, and being a young man in 2015 involves a complex dance between embracing these changes and conforming to the unreconstructed remnants of traditional gender roles. All too often men are berated for their poor emotional intelligence, or condemned for supposedly unfounded fears of talking about their feelings. Yet the fact that men aren't talking about mental health should not come as a surprise. Growing up, many young men will have been fed on a diet of gender-bound expectations: a 'boys-don't-cry' mentality that prioritises perceived strength above all else: the athletic over the expressive, and stoicism over emotional honesty. This is not to say that masculinity as a whole should be branded as pathological, but that we all carry harmful notions, conditioned from the day of our birth, of what it is to be a man. Paradoxically, calls for men to be more vulnerable co-occur with notions of what is considered attractive: reputation, fortitude and confidence are synonymous with sex appeal. These mixed messages lead men to perform a difficult tight-rope balancing act between masculinity and vulnerability. It makes sense that many men feel the need to wear a mask.

The impact of this has become increasingly apparent in my welfare role at university. It is both wonderful and saddening to see a person who has been alive for twenty years share thoughts and feelings that have been caged in their minds for most of their life. I have supported two men who, by all appearances, were the closest of friends: they faced similar emotional struggles, and yet had never considered confiding in each other. A male friend told me that he only realised that he had lived with depression for much of his life after finding support which allowed him to express his feelings. Emotional support, to him, was not just something he was reluctant to receive - it was an "unknown concept". My own experience was similar: when I first sat in the office of a therapist at the age of 17, I believed I was incapable of crying. I was depressed, and yet questioned the value of attempting to verbalize feelings that I thought I knew well enough: I experienced them every minute of the day, and believed they were a fundamental part of my character. Yet the moment I opened my mouth and said the words 'I feel so overwhelmed' I shed a year's worth of tears, and, slowly, things got better.

Without fail, when a male peer I'm supporting breaks into tears, he apologises. This is an unsurprising consequence of men being taught to believe that this entirely natural behaviour is shameful. When a man is told to stop crying, what he hears is: 'there is a part of you that makes me uncomfortable, because it doesn't fit in with what I know and expect of your gender. In order to belong to that gender, you must act in line with these expectations. Therefore you must deny a part of yourself.' The consequences of this should not be underestimated. Regardless of our gender, emotions are fundamental to our human experience. It should come as no surprise that when we teach young men to conceal their negative feelings, the results can be catastrophic. Toxic masculinity might silence the despairing voices of men, but it won't silence their thoughts. This is why so many men take the only step that they feel they can to silence those thoughts.

The problems of gender cannot fully account for the male mental health crisis. Young men are also subject to the onslaught of pressures that our increasingly visual world creates. They are expected to conform to a definition of attractiveness that is becoming more and more narrow; the rise of muscle dysmorphia (less formally called bigorexia) shows that the pressure on men to be perceived as strong includes not only emotional suppression, but also physical aesthetics. Men are also subject to the issues that all young people face - the relentless push for unattainable perfection in academics and extra-curriculars, and the need to create a flawless social media presence. At the same time, we see a considerable disparity between men and women in the likelihood of them receiving help for the toll that these pressures take. The first step towards remedying this is acknowledging the crisis that we face, both at an individual level and at the level of government.

This is of course not to say that progress has not been made: many of the male friends that I spoke to before writing this were aware of the scale of mental illness and suicide among men, shared similar ideas for its causes, and praised the mental health services available at our university. While this is promising, it might also suggest that among some men there is a disconnect between what they know and what they do. It has been said that we need to talk more about men's mental health. This is true: raising awareness and tackling stigma is fundamental to breaking down the barriers that prevent those suffering from getting help. But we don't just need more rhetoric about the tragedy of men's mental illness and suicide. What we need is more research, more funding, better interventions, compulsory mental health training for educators, and more preventative measures that seek to address the negative consequences of unreconstructed masculinity. We have a duty to help both the current and future generations of young men, and that duty entails not only talking, but also action. Men need to be taught to prioritise wellbeing over perceived strength, and this teaching needs to begin from the first day of their lives, not after a failed suicide attempt.