Why we have to look at suicide as a male issue

by Poorna Bell / 13 June, 2017
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Poorna Bell and husband Rob in London. Photo / Supplied

We can't pretend suicide is not a gender issue, says author Poorna Bell.

Strong and stoic – that is how I’d describe the average Kiwi man. Able to fix things, build things, pop beer caps with his teeth, dive to catch crayfish – a million and one things the average non-Kiwi man can’t. (And I should know, I live in England).

My husband was from New Zealand, and his Kiwi-ness is what drew me to him – his confidence, the quiet air of reassurance that whatever went wrong, he’d able to solve it with minimal fuss. Although we first met in London where he had been living for many years, he still carried the scent of the Tasman, the quiet of your forests.

We lived together in England, but Rob died in Auckland, where he took his own life in May 2015.

During the time we were together, Rob told me he had depression, but he was fairly nonchalant and matter-of-fact about it, as if it was a minor ailment that needed little management. Not a chronic condition that could last decades and render a person ill and unable to function for up to four months at a time. What would transpire – after he finally got proper treatment – was that his depression had most likely been with him since he was a child, and he also developed a formidable opiate addiction as a means (I believe) to self-medicate his illness.

In the search to find meaning around his death, I wrote a book called Chase The Rainbow, which was an account of mine and Rob’s lives together, interwoven with interviews I had done with experts. The purpose of the book was to educate people about things like depression and addiction so that we reduced the sense of judgement and stigma, but also to open up a conversation about suicide – something we recoil from as a society.

Although there are no simple solutions to reducing suicide levels, or even deciphering the meaning behind Rob’s death, one thing was clearly evident. His strong and silent stoicism may have got him through some challenging situations, but when things went really wrong, it trapped him into not being able to ask for help.

I would never suggest anything as reductive as ‘men need to share their feelings more’ but whatever your views or thoughts about suicide, there is no getting around the statistics.

In New Zealand, men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women. It kills twice the number of men than it does in Australia. It is the second leading cause of death for Pakeha men and the third leading cause of death among Maori men – beating cancer. In the same findings, suicide doesn’t even make the top five causes of death for women – of either origin.

We can pretend it’s not a gender issue, but what other conclusion can we draw from this?

In 2015, in New Zealand, 428 men died by suicide. I don’t know which of those numbers my husband was. But I do know he will never again – like the rest of those 427 – be able to tell us what bird is flying overhead, what fern just brushed against my leg, or sing The Pogues at the top of his lungs.

All of those deaths – not just his - are unacceptable. And what underpins the urgency behind finding an answer to all of this is that New Zealand also has the highest rate of teen suicides in the developed world. The future of this country, of your boys, literally depends on it.

Campaigns have been undertaken to raise the awareness around suicide rates, and the importance of asking for help. But I know that despite me saying to Rob on numerous occasions: 'Please ask me for help, tell me what’s wrong', he couldn’t bring himself to do so, because doing so meant that he had failed - as a man - to fix it himself.

The reason why more men kill themselves than women is much deeper and begins much earlier than we can imagine. One of the pieces of research I uncovered while researching for my book, was by Dr Mark Williams – the Emeritus professor of clinical psychology at Oxford university – who said that we treat girl babies differently to boy babies. As boys grow older, they are expected to grow up faster, grin and bear any hardships and be physically resilient at a much younger age when they need as much nurturing and softness as girls do.

So telling men to ask for help, when their entire upbringing- from school to the workplace - has mostly been centred around ‘manning up’ is asking the impossible of them. It’s asking them to behave in a way they haven’t been given permission their whole lives.

It doesn’t mean that being strong and stoic is bad. But it does mean we need to change how we think about men because at present, the template for men in 2017 is still mostly the same template we had for men back in the 1930s. Be the breadwinner. Be a good father. Never cry. Don’t talk about how you feel. Get on with it and it’ll come out right in the end.

That leaves no room for give or flexibility when things do go wrong. And as the artist Grayson Perry said in his documentary All Man – which was about modern day masculinity – when it happens, it is catastrophic. It explains - to an extent - why so many more men kill themselves than women because admitting failure as a man, it seems, goes against the grain of everything men have been brought up to believe in.

I remember Rob saying in a rare moment of vulnerability that he felt men were expected to “man up, suffer in silence and get on with it.” But at the same time, despite being aware of the trap of masculinity, he couldn’t escape it, or the shame he felt at not being able to conquer his depression.

Undoubtedly a huge part that weaves into suicide reduction is how we view mental illness – and to quote former All Black Sir John Kirwan, to see it as an illness and not a weakness. I know Rob struggled with the idea of his depression not being a weakness his entire life. According to a study, men in particular have a higher sense of self-stigma around depression than women.

All suicide is not necessarily mental health related though and what does seem to work is creating situations or community-based activities, where men can go, hang out and share or not share. And under-pinning that needs to be an education among men, so that when they do open up, their mates can know what to say. Kirwan mentioned that when he opened up to a friend, he was told to ‘harden up’ which he strongly says: “Hardening up is not what you need to do.”

Having conversations among friends, creating communities for those who aren’t part of any, and campaigns to end stigma around mental illness undoubtedly are effective solutions. But they are also inevitably mid to short term solutions.

The long term solution is actually two-fold. The first is about recognising that every person has mental health, in the same way that we have physical health. That looking after ourselves mentally is valued and viewed as important as going to the gym or playing sport.

But the second is about what we teach our children; training them to have emotional intelligence. While we want to protect our children from everything, life creeps in with its harder lessons, whether it’s around bullying or poor self-esteem. Teaching children about how to develop insight into themselves and proper coping mechanisms to deal with the tough times could help prevent a lot of adult mental illness. It could revolutionise how they interact with one another when they become men.

Because whatever your views, it is hard to argue that the current template of being a man is working for us anymore. It was originally created to survive the harshest conditions, to endure against the odds and provide for our families. But we must find a way of reinventing it to give our boys a better future, because the current price of this narrow view of what it is to be a man is quite literally costing lives.

Poorna Bell is author of Chase The Rainbow, published by Simon & Schuster.


If you need support for either yourself or someone you know, get in touch with:

Lifeline 0800 543 354 or 09 522 2999
Suicide Prevention Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Youthline 0800 376 633 or free text 234
Samaritans 0800 726 666

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