Earlier this week, long-running BBC documentary series made a programme about the phenomenon of male suicide – specifically, why men are a much larger risk of taking their own lives than women are, despite parity in the number of depression diagnoses between the genders.
Reporter Simon Jack is 44 years old, precisely the same age his father was when he took his own life in 1989 and he went on a journey to try to understand precisely why. He cites common statistics: in the UK, male suicides numbered 4,858 last year. 78% of all suicides were men, 22% were women. Despite a small dip between 2008 and 2010, the increase since 2007 has been “significant”, rising from 4,085. This is all stuff I discuss here regularly.
I became frustrated about 5:00 in for the same reason I got frustrated about the BBC article last week. I presume the magazine article was produced from the contents of the documentary. The same Professor Rory O’Connor cast doubt on the link between suicide and depression, but I want to reiterate my point again that we are talking about diagnosed depression. Because of the expectation to act in a certain way, men are more reluctant than women to talk about our issues.
Around a quarter of the way in, Jack talks to his mother who confirmed that his dad was not an emotional person, he put on a stiff upper lip because that’s what was expected of him. I know how that feels, to be silent on the outside while inside feeling like you want to scream, shout and hit inanimate objects – trapped by expectation and social demands to “man up” and “be strong”.
Interestingly, though the 40-44 male group is at most risk of suicide, it is the leading killer of men aged 20-34. We see an example of a young man who took his own life, feeling he couldn’t talk to his own family about his difficulties and another who came close to suicide. We finally come up against the idea of having difficulty and showing it as being a “weakness”.
This is the message we get all the time – from our peers, from our families, from society (which includes women’s expectations of men). Each time, the documentary comes close to making this point – when it does it avoids the major factor – how society expects men to act. Sometimes, It’s easy to blame only men for practically everything, and it also feels it’s easier to come up with a sound-bite like “Toxic Masculinity” than to look at the wider social expectations and accept that we are all equally culpable.
“I want a Real Man”, “Men shouldn’t cry”, “Man up!”, “Grow a set!” are damaging regardless of the gender of the person holding the view and speaking the words. Finishing off the programme by saying “men should open up more” is a great message, but it is crassly superficial and meaningly until we can start to ask precisely why men don’t open up – and before we can do that, we need to look at how people expect men to act.
If you’re in the UK, you can view it here but it is only available for the next four weeks or so.