A text arrives from my neighbor: “You’re a psychologist. Any insight into how a seemingly happy 42-year-old man with a successful career, wife and 2 boys he loved, can commit suicide with no warning signs?”
It’s difficult, what do they want to hear? That it is a spur of the moment irreversible decision. Almost certainly not the truth that it is the creeping up of unhappiness and dissatisfaction over months, probably years, hidden from everyone around him, especially those that he loved.
- Over 1 million people a year commit suicide.
- It’s estimated 10 to 20 times this number attempt it.
- This is more than natural disasters, war and deaths by violent crime combined.
- Of the 30,000 suicides in the USA each year 80% are men.
- In older age groups, the disparity between male and female suicide grows to 7:1.
Traditional models suggest that the causes of suicide are psychological pain or a pervasive sense of hopelessness that cannot be overcome. While these are undoubtedly influencing factors underlying peoples experience they are very hard to identify and so predicting suicide based on this is next to impossible. So many male suicides, as with my neighbors friend, appear to come out of nowhere, they are the last person you would expect to take such measures.
As a psychologist, I am very aware that in our society men tend not to come forward for help when they experience emotional distress or discomfort. Many, I believe, view it as weakness, as a sign they can’t cope. They are not willing to admit to anyone, even professionals, that they feel something other than what is perceived as “normal”. So, they push it away and deny their experience. No-one else is talking about it, they must be the only one who feels this way. Society suggests it is more natural for women to experience emotion and they are allowed to talk about it, but real men shouldn’t cry. So, they bottle up their emotions, pretending they are not there, trying to manage them alone but with no knowledge of how to do that and no model from society of how to do so.
The gender stereotypes that are still pervasive in many western cultures play into this fear that men have of fully expressing themselves. “Don’t be such a girl” and “suck it up” are among many phrases that discourage men from expressing emotion and it is most apparent in the ways we bring up our children. But for men without healthy outlets for emotion it is bottled up into helplessness, or comes out as aggression because there are few other socially acceptable ways to express themselves.
Men experience as many emotions as women. Our brains are similar. Yes, there are differences but the main difference in expression is one that comes from cultural and societal norms that expect men to retain a Stiff Upper Lip. In the course of my career I have worked in mental health services, traditional health services, male prisons and corporations, large and small. In all I have seen similar attitudes from men, amounting to the repression of emotion and the unwillingness to admit to distress for fear of being seen as unable to cope or weak. It is concealed under a veneer, of happiness, of love, of successful coping or even success and power. But it is there, unseen and thus unchallenged.
An interesting fact is that most people with depression don’t kill themselves, so mental health is not the explanation for suicide that so many think it is. Rory O’Connor a recognized expert on suicide identified a trait common to those with suicidal thoughts, social perfectionism. This is about what you believe others expect of you. It is not about what you expect of yourself nor is it anything to do with what others actually think or expect of you. It is about your interpretation of it. This leads people to believe that they have let others down, or have failed to be good enough in some way. It is the way that your thoughts and emotions combine to convince you that you are less than perfect, that you are not living up to expectation.
For men, combined with the gender stereotype and social demands, these expectations can be around being the breadwinner, providing a good role model for the family, it can be competitive or achievement focused where people feel they are defined by their success in the workplace, their wealth or power.
The added stress that comes from a high-pressure job, the responsibilities put upon an executive within a company or long hours at work away from family all play into this sense of failing to be everything you can be. Taking all this into account it’s easier to relate to the pressure people can experience. Many men experiencing stress and burnout don’t recognize it as such because no-one else is talking about it and it seems so commonplace in today’s frenetic world, “everyone else can cope so why can’t I?”. But stress is not normal, it is not how we were designed to live and the physical, mental and emotional repercussions of not dealing with the daily stress that most of us experience is detrimental to our health and well-being.
As a society, we need to encourage people to talk about stress and the more negatively perceived emotions and make it acceptable to do so. Within corporations where it is acknowledged there is a lot of pressure on employees we need to understand that busy does not equate to productive and start being more understanding of the whole of our employees lives. People bring their whole selves to work, and they take all the stress and difficulty of work back into their home lives. We cannot separate ourselves into distinct categories and emotions are a part of everything we do, it is unavoidable so why deny it?
Is emotion an inability to cope. No, it is a natural response to life. But unexpressed; kept inside, it can become something much darker. It grows and writhes, at worst it can push people into positions where they feel unable to continue, that they are worthless and weak and that those around them would be better off if they were gone. It is not a cry for help, it is far beyond that. When men decide to commit suicide, it is usually done in an irreversible fashion. To those around him it comes out of the blue.
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