What Can We Do As Brothers About Britain's Male Suicide Crisis?
Date: Friday 07 Jul 2017
"The thing people always want to know is: why?
"He fell into the group of men who had no diagnosis of mental illness at all before they took their own lives,"
"And from the outside looking in, he hid the way he was feeling extremely well. Before it happened I didn't think our son was the type of person who takes his own life. He had all the things you think a person needs: he had a job, he had supportive friends, he had his family, he had plans. But it wasn't enough."
Men in the UK aged 20 to 49 are more likely to die from suicide than any other cause of death. Sam Parker investigates the reasons why and meets the people determined to put a stop to it.
Professor Green talks frankly about his father's suicide
Imagine a virus we don't fully understand is killing young men in record numbers. It kills three times as many British men as women, although nothing adequately explains why. The government confirms that while almost all other leading causes of death are being slowly eroded by medical and social progress, deaths caused by this virus are at their highest for decades. Yet the money we spend on researching and treating the problem stands at a fraction of what we spend on those other leading causes of death, as do charitable donations from the public.
The deaths this virus has caused have risen to the point that if you are a man between 20 and 49, you're more likely to die from it than cancer, road accidents or heart disease. It is the biggest threat we face, the number one killer. The figures are chilling, and yet still it is something we hardly discuss, in public or private — which is a significant part of the problem itself.
Last February, the Office for National Statistics published a report covering the years from 2001 to 2013, showing that suicide among men has reached its highest levels since the early Eighties, rising sharply in 2007 and hitting a peak in 2013. (In the same period, suicide among women declined, then remained constant.) Always a leading cause of death among the young — for the simple reason that death by natural causes is statistically less likely — suicide rates in men aged between 45 and 59 have also now begun to rise, increasing to their highest levels since 1981.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg earlier this year described suicide as "a massive taboo", the last in mental health. The reasons for this are relatively easy to explain, if not to justify. Before the 1961 Suicide Act, taking your own life was illegal in Britain. It still carries with it a connotation of dishonour and shame, as if those who do it are deserters from the battlefield of life. "The easy way out" they used to call it, and perhaps some still do.
It is still the case that the type of men we think die by suicide are the unwell, the disturbed, the unlucky; who stumble at life's biggest hurdles and are too weak to get back up. Most of us like to think we're made of sterner stuff. We don't know that 75 percent of people who take their own lives have never been diagnosed with a mental health problem, or that only five per cent of people who do suffer from depression go on to take their own lives.
We think of recent high-profile examples of suicide, like fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who killed himself in 2010, Wales football manager Gary Speed (2011), or film star Robin Williams (2014), as anomalies. Men who had it all: money, fame, the adoration of the public, the respect of their peers, a glorious past and assured futures. We celebrate their memories as professionals, but we don't pause to consider what their deaths tell us about mental health, about the way that no amount of external glory can ameliorate an inner pain.
But the statistics are clear. The problem has become too big for us to ignore. The question to be asked now is not just why young men are killing themselves in record numbers, but what are we going to do about it?
I am sitting in the almost empty cafe of a no-frills hotel in North London. It's a functional sort of place, designed for people with brief business in the capital rather than those on holiday. A couple of students scan the day's papers. A waitress cuts fruit for the smoothie machine. A man in a suit drifts in and out of the room, talking self-importantly on his phone.
A hand lands on my shoulder. It is Shirley Smith, a small, energetic woman in her late forties with short red hair. I introduce myself and she immediately places my mild accent before pulling me in for a hug. She is from my neck of the woods: Durham, in the North East, where suicide rates among men are the highest in England.
Shirley is a woman I feel I've known all my life. She's like the women who brought me up: warm, tough, unpretentious, prone to conspiratorial laughter. In no time at all we're making fun of the self-important man, cursing the waitress for her noisy fruit blending. And then she tells me about Daniel, her eldest son, who was 19 when he took his life, about how she came home that day in August 2005 with her two other boys — only 10 and five at the time — and how the elder, Matthew, found Daniel with her, how she still can't say the word that describes how he did it, even now, ten years later.
Shirley is in London to visit Westminster due to her role in an all-party parliamentary group for suicide prevention. After Daniel died, she and her family did the only thing they could to try and make some good come of it — they set up a charity, which is now their life's work. If U Care Share — Daniel's brothers and cousin picked the name in the year he hanged himself — works with Durham police to provide practical and emotional support to families bereaved by suicide. It is the only organisation of its kind in England.
"The thing people always want to know is: why?" Shirley explains, her hand slowly turning the cutlery on the table. "But I am yet to meet a family who gets a 'ta da!' moment when you find that out because the person who can tell them isn't here anymore.
"Daniel falls into the group of men who had no diagnosis of mental illness at all before they took their own lives," she continues, "and from the outside looking in, he hid the way he was feeling extremely well. Before it happened I didn't think our son was the type of person who takes his own life. Daniel had all the things you think a person needs: he had a job, he had supportive friends, he had his family, he had plans. But it wasn't enough."
I ask Shirley, as a mother of boys, why she thinks three-quarters of all suicides in the UK are male. She can't say for sure — no one can — but she offers an explanation I will hear in some form from almost everyone I talk to, from scientists and academics to charity workers and families.
"Think back," she says. "We still live in an era where, if a female toddler falls down, her mam picks her up, dusts her down, says 'awww' and gives her a cuddle. A little boy falls down and it's 'you don't cry'. That's what we expect from a man — we want them to 'man up'.
"Daniel learned at a very early age to tie his shoelaces, he learned he needed to be physically strong, physically well. But nobody ever spoke to him — I never spoke to him — about the impact of life."
I ask her hopefully about the government, the people she is here to visit today. Last January, when he made his "taboo" comment, Nick Clegg called for a "new ambition for zero suicides across the NHS". Surely, that is a sign those in power are beginning to take the issue seriously?
Shirley shakes her head. "'Zero suicide' is a fabulous… not 'pipe dream', exactly… I would love for us to truly achieve it. But zero suicide is for people who have contact with mental health services. That's what [Clegg] was talking about — people already diagnosed and in the system. What about the majority of suicide cases, who have no diagnosis at all? They're the people we need to reach. We focus on the tiny percentage in care because the bigger picture is baffling to people. It's too scary to contemplate."
As we say goodbye, Shirley hands me an If U Care Share pack, which I open later. Among the leaflets, pens and stress balls is a charity wristband, sealed in a plastic case with a card. On it is a photo of a handsome young man with short red hair, a smile playing across his lips, his head cocked slightly as though listening to a joke. Reading the dates under his name, I notice Daniel and I were born just a few months apart.
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