Robin Williams’ tragic suicide, one year ago today, sparked a much needed conversation surrounding men’s mental health and suicide. According to the World Health Organization, someone around the globe dies by suicide every 40 seconds. In the year 2000, 815,000 people lost their lives to suicide. This was more than double the amount of people killed as a direct result of armed conflict. In the year 2000, the suicide rate was 1.9% higher for men than it was for women. Today it has increased to four times higher for men than for women. With so many advances in science and medicine and the dialogues that are opening up around mental illness, why are men dying in record numbers? It is because we are failing them.
Whether we want to say it our loud or not, the truth is that there is a huge divide between men and women when it comes to health and wellness. By society’s standards men are traditionally the strong ones, the fixers. Before the last decade men weren’t supposed to have feelings, or if they did, they definitely weren’t supposed to show them. Society has demanded a lot from men, half of it doesn’t make any sense and when it does, it contradicts the other half. A man’s job was to work hard, provide for others, and at the same time boomerang between rescuing women and leaving women to rescue themselves.
If you ask any man over the age of twenty what his first lesson was, chances are he will tell you that he heard, “boys don’t cry” before he hit pre-school. For some reason we have been telling our male children that their feelings don’t matter. We tell them to “man up” while crossing our fingers and hoping that eventually those unacknowledged feelings don’t turn into a raw pit of aching shame. Yet we embrace our young girls’ feelings and tell them to say it loud and proud. “Don’t be ashamed sweetheart, you matter and so do your feelings” Let me try my damnedest to help you, just as soon as I get your little brother suited up for hockey practice because he’s displaying some feelings, so we should get those worked out on the ice–with some fights and sweat. Really? Yes, really.
Historically, women are a force to be reckoned with. When the world needs changing, women band together as a united front and get results. Suffrage is an example. The women’s health movement has been autonomous for the most part, but recently men have taken up the initiative as well. With the suicide rates skyrocketing, 11 Canadians dying every single day, 8 of those being male, people are finally starting to pay attention. Society is finally starting to realize that telling boys to “man up” is doing nothing but cloaking issues that need to be dealt with.
I hate to divide stigma, that seems ridiculous to me, but it’s so glaringly obvious. The stigma surrounding mental health as a whole is lessening, but the stigma surrounding men’s mental health is still a huge hurdle that needs to be overcome.
It is fact that women will report feelings of depression to a doctor before men will.
It is fact that many men’s physical health issues stem from emotional health that has gone untreated.
It is fact that many men will not seek help for emotional or mental health issues for fear of being perceived as weak.
It is fact that we do not have enough funding or specialists in any area of the world that are devoted to men’s mental health.
We see the destruction that occurs when mental health issues are left untreated. It is hard enough to ask for help due to the stigma of mental illness in general, but when an entire society is urging you to be strong, get over it, and man up, it is a recipe for disaster.
If a man can’t ask for help because he is afraid of being perceived as weak, then we are failing. If we have ingrained it into boys that real men don’t cry then we are failing.
If another man considers suicide as his only way to end his suffering then we are failing.
If we keep beating it into our children that boys don’t cry then we are failing.
If we make it damn near impossible for a man to ask for help then we are failing.
If society continues to pit one gender against another and demand that we don’t see the differences then we are failing.
If we continue on this same path, then we are failing.
In May I was privileged to feature some amazing men’s mental health advocates in my Mental Health Warrior event on The Lithium Chronicles. These amazing men are changing the way the world views men’s mental health. These brilliant men are standing up and sharing their stories and in doing so are shattering all preconceived notions of what it means to be brave. These men are paving the way for other men. They are the epitome of strength.
Jean-François Claude was instrumental in enacting the city of Ottawa’s Men’s Mental Health Awareness Day in 2014, which has now become an annual observance.
Andy Behrman is one of the most passionate activists I know. Featured on Stephen Fry’s “The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive” Andy has put a face on bipolar disorder.
Gabe Howard is not only an award winning activist, he’s also an author and professional speaker. Gabe, another Psych Central blogger, devotes his time to spreading mental health awareness and education.
I believe that suicide is entirely preventable, but I also believe that we need to openly acknowledge the fact that we aren’t talking about it enough. Opening up a dialogue about suicide and suicide prevention is a good thing. Talking about men’s mental health and the lack of support is also a good thing. There is no reason why our suicide numbers can’t be decreased, and the first step is that they must be acknowledged. We need to let our men know that strength comes in all forms. There is no standard on which they must measure themselves. Good mental health is defined by the ability to speak out in confidence without fear of stigma. We must all do our part to help men become equal partners in the mental health discussion until the day that the discussion becomes gender free. Embracing balance means embracing and including the feelings of men.