Robin Williams, critically acclaimed actor and beloved comedian, killed himself in an apparent suicide earlier this month. His death ends his ongoing struggle with depression and is a tragic reminder of the importance of understanding the epidemic that is suicide. Especially for men.
The WHO estimates that about 1,000,000 people kill themselves each year. Global rates of suicide are up 60% since World War II. By 2030, depression will outpace cancer, stroke, war and accidents as the world's leading cause of disability and death.
Although twice as many women suffer from depression and many more attempt suicide, nearly four times as many men die from suicide every year. Why?
Depression is a medical issue. Death by suicide is, arguably, a social issue.
According to "Interpersonal Theory of Suicide", the likelihood of suicide is increased when people believe they are a burden, feel lonely, lose hope and have a highly developed tolerance for fear and pain.
Men's core desire is to belong and be wanted.
Women's core fear is isolation, which makes sense on a primal level. Without the protection of a tribe or a companion to protect and provide for her she would be doomed in the wild jungle. But we have come a long way and do a fairly good job at raising our girls to be self-reliant, as well as speak up and reach out in times of need. We teach them how to protect themselves, to provide for themselves and nurture environments of community. Women are encouraged to share amongst each other. And that is a beautiful thing.
Historically, men would get their sense of belonging and self-worth from their tribe. Today, with the loss of tribal culture, the need to belong can only be be met in the workplace and family - strong bets no longer. Job security is a thing of the past. Half of marriages end in divorce and most custody cases are won by the mother.
As men are conditioned not to speak up and seek help, we have a serious problem. Boys are taught that in order to be a man they must endure, alone, without expression of emotion. This is brilliantly depicted in the trailer for Jennifer Siebel Newsome's new movie The Mask You Live In.
According to NIH, social isolation is arguably the strongest, most reliable predictor of suicide. So let's focus our efforts on battling isolation. Perceived isolation - induced by the reality-skewing effects of depression - can be alleviated by medication and therapy, and social isolation by better health politics, raising our boys to share authentically and vulnerably and calling our men into community.
Men's core fear is not measuring up as a man - core shame. One aspect of perceived burdensomeness comes from the belief that one is a liability; this can have sources ranging from distress caused by homelessness, incarceration, illness or unemployment, to a core belief of being burdensome or unwanted. The other aspect comes from self-hate, arising from low self-esteem, self blaming, shame and agitation. Men are much more likely to face the bleakness of unemployment, homelessness or incarceration, frustrating both the need to belong and the perception of burdensomeness.
Women, on the other hand, are more likely to ruminate - to experience continuous negative self talk. To any, man or woman, thinking one is a burden to others - "they're better off without me" - is horrid.
Women are more prone to suicidal desire than men. They experience more rumination, are more afraid of isolation and attempt suicide more often than men. More men die, however, because of their suicide capability. This is down to two components: a lowered fear of death and elevated physical pain tolerance. Men are typically exposed to more fear and pain inducing events, such as violence, social isolation, drug abuse, in their lifetime. The more continuous pain and fear a man is exposed to, especially facing it on his own, the more he acquires the capability to commit suicide.
The Mask Must Go
We need to end bullying. Robin Williams was bullied and laughter was his vehicle to put an to end the tormenting and win the respect of others.
We need to start teaching our boys that real men do real talk, that to reach out and ask for help is a sign of strength and wisdom. We need empathetic men who are in community with others to raise our boys. We need intact families. We need a health care system that, rather than cutting $5 billion dollars and have 60% of US adults with mental diseases go untreated, puts a strong focus on attacking depression early.
Most off all we need to slow down, take off the mask and talk. And listen.
I myself have experienced too much of what I have been hearing in Robin Williams interviews. I was also bullied in childhood and know well the deep cut to self-worth bullying leaves behind, have also heard the voices that say "jump" or "just one", have lost family members to suicide and friends to addiction. The slippery slope, the darkness, the struggle with authenticity, the horrendous torment of shame and guilt . . . common fellow passengers on my journey.
Music saved my life. And by the grace of God, every day is a new today to get up and practice: practice mindfulness, self-care, loving, and empowering myself and others unconditionally. Healing. Staying conscious and staying connected. One day at a time.
I'm proud I finally managed to avoid isolation and look for support. I belong to a community of men who give me a sense of belonging, help with my loneliness, allow me to share authentically, hold me accountable, look out for me, help me stay away from the things that equip me with the tragic capability to commit suicide.
If you are a man who wants to belong, then join our circle: Mankind Project
If you or anyone you know - man, woman or child - needs help visit Suicide Prevention Website
in the US call: 1-800-273-8255
in the UK call: 08457 90 90 90
If you've been affected by the issues in this blog post, you can also call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.