What would you do if a friend suddenly reached out in shock, telling you that her 28 year old nephew just died? He killed himself.
How would you respond when she shared her feelings of guilt for not recognizing and responding to his social media posts a few weeks earlier where he expressed feelings of despair?
What would you do when she cries out that there needs to be more done to get the message out about the emotional world of males – the message I keep sharing?
And then she says, maybe she could have done more, if she knew more.
It is for her and all the people that might just be in a position to prevent a suicide, and I believe that is all of us, that I am writing this article.
The pain feels so bad that you just want it to stop!
We all think, ‘this will never happen to my son’, until it does. Or when your son’s best friend’s father commits suicide after losing his job and declaring bankruptcy, and you find you can’t find a really clear way to explain why he did that. Or when your young adult son and his best friend seem to be seeking to escape the world through drugs and alcohol, you pray it is just a phase and he will live to see better days.
Our boys are facing challenges that are affecting the very core of their being. They are constantly given messages, either overtly or inadvertently, telling them what is acceptable, and not, for how they behave, how they should feel – if they are ‘real’ boys. This starts for some before they even take their first breath. The masks they feel they need to wear to fit in can start to crack and the pain oozes out.
How bad is it, really?
Let’s look at some of the statistics to get a clearer picture of the prevalence of suicide among males.
- Globally 800,000 people die from suicide every year – twice the number from homicide. That is one person every 40 seconds. Suicide rates are just over twice as high for men than for women
- In some countries the suicide rate in men can be as much as ten times higher than for women. Across Eastern Europe, it’s 6 to 7 times higher. Across most countries in the world it’s in the range of 2 to 4 times higher.
- Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young men in many Commonwealth nations, including Australia, New Zealand, and the UK. In fact, men account for 70% of suicides across the globe, rising to over 80% in African Commonwealth countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa.
- In the US, around 35,000 men die by suicide each year; about one death every 15 minutes.
- In Canada, approximately 3,000 men die by suicide per year, translating to over 50 deaths per week.
Help me. Please!
I am a boy with feelings.
I am tired of hiding who I am.
No one understands.
No one cares.
We have a problem.
When males are at the point of suicide they often feel completely isolated, they feel they don’t belong anywhere and have no connection to others. They are hopeless about their situation and feel helpless to make it better. They just want the pain of living to end. They are desperate.
What might be behind this sense of total desperation?
In a recent study, almost one in three millennial men always or often felt lonely, and just over a quarter had no close friends. (in contrast, this is almost double the rate for baby-boomer men).
The impact of negative stereotypes and social stigmas: The social demands on how a man behaves and feels (often referred to as the Boy Code) often influences a male to hide his vulnerabilities and mask any sense of depression or anxiety – those are not manly attributes. Traditional male gender roles discourage emotional expression.
Adult males often feel pressure to be the main financial resource in a family. If he gets laid off, or if his salary cannot provide the lifestyle his family wants, he tends to feel like a failure. It is not uncommon in some cultures for the spouses to shame their husbands to do better as a provider.
What about Mental Health?
Why don’t they reach out for help and support?
In a UK survey of 1000 men, men were asked why they don’t talk about their mental health and responded:
- ‘I’ve learnt to deal with it’ (40%)
- ‘I don’t wish to be a burden to anyone’ (36%)
- ‘I’m too embarrassed’ (29%)
- ‘There’s negative stigma around this type of thing’ (20%)
- ‘I don’t want to admit I need support’ (17%)
- ‘I don’t want to appear weak’ (16%)
- ‘I have no one to talk to’ (14%)
It is recognized that society’s gender stereotypes about women – that they should behave and look a certain way – can be damaging to them. We are not so aware that men can be damaged by societal expectations based on gender, too. These expectations, or more accurately, restrictions, play a role in why men are less likely to discuss or seek help for their mental health problems, which they might not even be able to recognize themselves.
Men will often cover up any feelings of anxiety or depression, and not even consider the idea of getting professional help. That would not be manly behavior. Internalized gender stereotypes (often unconscious), gender differences in communication skills and coping strategies, can impact who is recognized to be a candidate for mental health support. It is important to be able to recognize some of the physical symptoms that a man suffering from mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, may exhibit.
These may include:
- Anger, irritability, or aggressiveness
- Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge
- Increased worry or feeling stressed
- Misuse of alcohol and/or drugs
- Sadness or hopelessness
- Suicidal thoughts
- Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
- Engaging in high-risk activities
- Aches, headaches, digestive problems without a clear cause
- Obsessive thinking or compulsive behavior
- Thoughts or behaviors that interfere with work, family, or social life
- Unusual thinking or behaviors that concern other people
Boys have deep emotions, too.
Anxiety & Depression
Most of us have experienced depression at some time in our life. We lose interest in things we used to enjoy, have feelings of guilt or low self-worth, our sleep becomes disturbed, our appetites might change, we have a hard time to focus on things, and we often would prefer to just curl up in bed and do nothing.
With male depression there may also be different symptoms: irritability, angry outbursts, increased loss of control, more risk-taking, and aggression. These expressions do not have the same acceptance as a woman’s tears when she is depressed. Men’s symptoms can often be written off as simply stereotypical male characteristics.
Men may be more likely to self-treat symptoms of depression with alcohol and other substances rather than talk about it. They might also throw themselves into a project, or work, in order to avoid addressing the issues behind their depression. Alcohol often adds to deeper depression.
Why won’t men reach out?
Men prefer to find solutions to problems instead of support from others when they are struggling. When they can’t find any solutions to their problems they feel frustrated and powerless.
Sometimes their situation can cause them to ‘lose face’ and that can be a huge blow to their ego. He has failed at something – being a husband, a father, a provider, etc.
Men are more vulnerable when things go wrong because they have fewer coping strategies and usually have weaker support systems than women do. They can quickly succumb to feelings of desperation and hopelessness.
What can we do?
Parents can make a difference.
- Awareness. This is the first step. We all have unconscious gender biases – and the key is to become conscious about how gender stereotyping is impacting how you are parenting your son. There are many examples of how, even as early as the moment you know what the sex of your unborn baby is, the way you think, feel and talk about your child is impacted by stereotypical expectations. Experiments have shown that mothers talk less to their baby boys and fathers tend to be stricter with their sons. Inadvertently we are sending the messages to our sons about how they are expected to behave and feel, as a boy. The problem is that in order to do that, they learn they need to mask their true feelings, and only show what society says is acceptable. The more masks they need to wear, the angrier they get, or the more dissociated they are and shut down. When we follow the rules of the Boy Code, whether unconsciously or not, we are telling our boys that some misbehaviour will be acceptable because boys are meant to be wild and strong and fight. We are telling them that to be weak or vulnerable are characteristics that will be reasons to be shamed or embarrassed. We basically are reinforcing an image that males are toxic.
- Knowledge. We have to learn about gender differences and respect them. We need to understand that there are some basic differences in how males think, hear, see, and communicate. We need to be aware of what works and doesn’t work when our boys misbehave – and what is the emotion not being met when there is that misbehaviour. The more we learn, the more we understand, and the more we can support the emotional world of our boys.
- Action. It is not enough to be aware and be knowledgeable. We have to take action. Too many boys are in such deep emotional pain that they chose to take their life. It might not be your son, but it could be his best friend. You have the chance to make a huge difference in a boy’s life simply by showing that you understand some of the pressures he feels, and that you are on his side. You can make a difference.
Boys will benefit from a strong support system, a sense of community. In some communities a Rite of Passage can set the stage for creating this kind of supportive bond with other male mentors.
Teach your boy, and his friends, what the Boy Code tells them, and shouldn’t. Explain that there are some very wrong messages society is pushing on boys and they do not need to follow those rules.
Create a safe space in your home where your boy, and his friends, can let down their guard, drop their masks, and know they are safe to express a full range of emotions without being afraid of being ridiculed or embarrassed.
Sometimes it only takes one special person, who reaches out and helps a boy feel seen, validated, accepted and loved, to save a boy who feels so much pain that he is considering taking his own life. Be that person.
Male suicide is being referred to as the ‘Silent Crises’ or the ‘Silent Epidemic’. It is time for us to raise our voices, become aware, learn more and then take action. Start with your son – one boy at a time can change everything.
Advocate For You Boy & For All Boys. They need our support.