The sad saga of men and suicide

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The silence was almost deadly for 41-year-old Devin.

After losing his job, his marriage, home, and access to his young son, all in 2016, the Ottawa dad found himself all alone, living in his car and contemplating suicide. He didn’t tell anyone. “All I ever wanted was to be a dad and that was taken away,” says Devin. “I just wanted the pain to stop.”

But he didn’t want to leave his son behind to relive the trauma of his own childhood. At age seven Devin found his beloved grandfather dead – by suicide. “He was all I had. I was left with a falling-down drunk dad.”

Life was a struggle of pain, depression, bullying and school suspensions – 42 in elementary school alone. His utter sadness and hopelessness continued into adulthood and was kept hidden for years because of shame and embarrassment. “Men are supposed to suck it up and just roll with the punches.”

He was dying for help but didn’t know where to turn. “I didn’t want to hurt anymore,” says Devin. Nor did he want to release the grenade that suicide leaves behind. “My son deserves a better existence than what I had as a child.”

But mental health support for men is practically non-existent, so too government funding, says Devin. “We need to acknowledge that men suffer too.”

Eighteen months ago Devin found support at the Ottawa branch of the Canadian Centre for Men and Families (CCMF), which just launched a new suicide awareness campaign at lookbehindthemask.com to bring to light the anguish that can be hiding behind a mask of false happiness.

“Appearances can be deceiving and men often suffer in silence,” says Justin Trottier, of CCMF. “This campaign is a call to action to each of us to look at the hidden signs that the men we love are suffering” and encourage men to ask for help.

Statistically, one of the biggest things killing men is men themselves – suicide is the current leading cause of death for men between the ages of 40-60 in Canada. Men’s mental health issues remain sidelined by stigma despite men being 75% of all Canadian suicides.

Traditional norms of masculinity are toxic, and not talking tragic: Globally, on average, one man dies by suicide every minute of every day, reports the Movember Foundation, which is committed to changing the face of men’s health and reducing the rate of male suicide by 25% by 2030.

Contributing factors that correlate with male distress and suicide, in particular, are major losses like separation and divorce, losing access to children or loss of employment, reports Trottier, of menandfamilies.org.

“Men need to speak up and speak out – we all do,” says Devin, who recently lost his job and is now working 25 hours a week for minimum wage. He gets to have his son two weekends a month.

Devin attends a support group weekly and is sharing his story to draw attention to the anguish and distress, and the lack of mental health support for men.

A 2017 survey by Men’s Health shows that 56% of male respondents had considered suicide and close to three-quarters would not describe their mental health as “good.”

It’s a serious issue that is starting to reach crisis levels, says Dr. Rob Whitley, assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University and advisory fellow at CCMF. About 4,000 Canadians die by suicide every year in Canada – and that means 3,000 are men.

“It has been argued that there is a ‘demonization of men’ in many sectors of society, leading to a ‘gender empathy gap’, which means that in general there is more empathy for women and children than men,” says Whitley. “The suffering rarely makes its way into the media or into the public gaze.”

There is a complex web of causation behind every suicide, no one single culpable factor. The mental health system needs to offer men more choice, beyond medication or talk therapies, and become better tailored to men’s needs, he says. “The current system is setting men up for failure.”

Whitley is championing for a Canadian inquiry into the mental health of men and boys, like the one currently taking place in the United Kingdom currently “which has been a resounding success in establishing underlying issues and bringing different voices to the conversation.”

Public investment is needed, adds Dr. Dan Bilsker, psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia. Intervention with despairing men is best with “skill-oriented approaches, which teach more effective ways of coping with psychological suffering, whether the skill-training is implemented through psychotherapy, self-care workbooks, community workshops or online tools.”

Recognize these signs of despair:

  • Recently experienced a big loss such as relationship, work, health
  • Withdrawing from contact with family or friends
  • Notable increased alcohol use
  • Expresses feeling hopeless to trusted family members or friends
  • History of self-harm, threats of suicide or violence when under stress

– Dan Bilsker, psychologist

Dealing with the issues

It is not easy for family members to help loved ones dealing with mental health issues – they are often unsupported themselves, says Dr. Robert Whitley, an expert in the prevention of male suicide.

There are some mental health promoting activities that family members can help enable and encourage to promote recovery, says Whitley, including religious activity, which has been associated with better mental health.

“Likewise contact with nature is positively correlated with better mental health. So is exercise,” says Whitley.

Interestingly, a new study indicates that citizen journalism and writing/filming scripts can help foster recovery in people with mental health issues, he adds.

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