September 10th was World Suicide Prevention day. Throughout the day my social media feed was filled with well-meaning posts informing people of the tragic statistics, and particularly the prevalence of male suicide. We were reminded that 75% of all suicides are male; most posts went on to encourage men to reach out for help, as male suicide happens because men don’t talk, right?
BEING A REAL MAN MEANS CONSTANTLY HAVING TO CONFORM TO THE MALE RULES
I’m not denying there exists an unwritten code that requires men to be strong, stay in control, suppress emotions and shun weakness or vulnerability; this is a significant factor in male suicide. In his book ‘The Secret Lives of Men’ James Hawes suggests that boys learn messages about masculinity and the expression of emotions very early on in life. They learn that to be a ‘real man’ means constantly having to prove themselves worthy of being part of the male tribe by conforming to the male rules. Boys learn there are rules around expressing physical and emotional pain. If a boy who is hurt dares to cry, then he is hit by emotional shaming, and so the beginning of male emotional restriction is born.
So, it seems obvious to encourage men to talk about their struggles, right? In theory, yes, but in reality how easy do men find it to put aside the man rules and risk becoming vulnerable in front of other men?
I’m not a man, but as a woman, I have experienced how difficult it is to reach out for help. When we’re in deep despair our social engagement systems are severely compromised. We start to feel like a burden and unworthy of support.
In the Suicide First Aid course I deliver we explore three core beliefs:
Most people thinking about suicide don’t want to die, they need the pain to stop
Most people thinking about suicide will let you know, either consciously or unconsciously.
Therefore… if we respond to the invitation and reach out with support, suicide has to be one of the most preventable deaths.
WE SHAME PEOPLE WHO DIE BY SUICIDE FOR NOT REACHING OUT
It often feels like we shame people who take their own life, by suggesting that they died because they failed to talk, or reach out for help. I’ve stood on the edge of suicide and have ‘reached out’ in my own way. Few people will tell you they’re thinking of suicide unless you ask. Instead, their language becomes hopeless and helpless, they talk of being tired of fighting, of being lonely and feeling worthless.
Instead of putting the onus on people to reach out, as a society we have a responsibility to reach in. The greatest myth around suicide is that if we ask about suicide we give a person ideas they didn’t already have and might encourage them to take their life. All of the research in this area concludes that completely the opposite is true. If we reach in and ask directly and openly about thoughts of suicide we give someone the permission to share their distress with us. People often shy away from asking the question as they feel they need specialist training. You don’t need to solve a person’s problems. You probably don’t need to say much at all. The most precious gift we give to a person in distress is our time and compassion. People need to feel seen, heard and valued. We all have the ability to listen without judgement.
We also need to be more proactive with the support we offer. How many times have you said to someone, I’m here for you, call me if you need a chat? People thinking about suicide find it incredibly difficult to call you for that chat, so reach in, show up and listen. Who knows, you could even save a life.