How many times must the words ‘you would never have known he was struggling’ have been uttered upon hearing that a male friend, colleague or family member has taken their own life?
Patriarchy and gender inequality disproportionately affect women and non-binary people, that much is certain. But traditional gender roles and rigid conceptions of masculinity and femininity have negative effects on all in society, and in some cases these effects are all the more insidious for their lack of visibility.
There is a silent killer in the UK, and we can no longer turn our heads and look the other way. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, with 12 men on average dying through suicide every day. There is a noticeable gender gap in deaths from suicide, with 75 per cent of the 6,117 lives taken by suicide in the UK in 2015 being men.
Persistent, outdated societal attitudes towards mental health issues and what it means to be a man exacerbate this issue, leaving young men feeling like they have to stoically ‘man up’ and bite their lip, rather than open up or find solace in seeking help, for fear of being seen as weak or emotional - or, rather more succinctly, feminine.
These repressive attitudes are reinforced through socialising with other male figures, and are passed from father to son, from brother to brother, from friend to friend. You learn to perform, to wear a mask when surrounded by others.
The fear that your masculinity may be called into question leads young men to bottle everything up, until the pressure reaches bursting point. Without an outlet or a shoulder to cry on, this bursting point is often final.
Some have sought to point the finger at feminism and the shifting of traditional gender roles, accusing the movement of attacking men and undermining traditional conceptions of manhood, such as that of the breadwinner or the father.
While feminism seeks directly to redress the imbalance in power relations between men and women, it is a rising tide that lifts all boats, freeing men from the restrictive confines of traditional masculinity. A redefinition of masculinity need not be an attack on men: it is a positive development that would allow all to lead happier, freer lives, helping to put an end to a situation that turns a blind eye to the silent suffering of those who desperately need help.
We need change. At the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), we actively work to prevent male suicide through a two-fold approach. In the first instance, we provide support for men who are down or in crisis. Secondly, we campaign for culture change to meet head-on outdated notions of masculinity that prevent men from seeking help.
Such a culture change would not only help men who are struggling to open up and seek help, but would also allow others to learn how to help and be there to support a male friend or family member. If it is our interactions with other men that socialise us to perform a certain concept of masculinity, then it is through these interactions that we learn that it’s okay to open up, to be scared, to need help. As CALM communicates in our #BestManProject campaign, whether it’s taking a mate to a doctor’s appointment, or making them a cup of tea when they’ve had a bad day, just being there for someone goes a long way to breaking down those barriers.
While asking for help is no sign of weakness (it takes untold courage and strength to open up to someone on such an intensely personal level), there is a place to be weak. That is the nature of depression. It opens you up, turns you inside out and leaves you empty. Everyone needs to feel they can find a place where they can be weak. Everyone needs to feel they can say: ‘Man down’.
CALM runs a free helpline (0800 585858) and webchat service for those who need help or are worried about someone else, running from 5pm until midnight daily. More information and support is available on www.calmzone.net.