Today
Sat 23 January 2021

Reverend Joe Haward explores the shocking rate of male suicide in the UK and its relationship to masculinity

In the UK, every week, 90 men will kill themselves. Suicide is the single biggest killer of men in the UK under the age of 45.

Since the mid-1990s, 75% of all suicides in the UK each year have been of men. Men aged between 45 and 49 have the highest rate of suicide with 27.1 deaths per 100,000 people. Nearly 5,000 men die from suicide every year.

The sheer scale of this health crisis is utterly shocking. These men each have a story, each one a life that has been lost to the reality and impact of mental health and suicide. 

A man close to me tried to kill himself in 2015. A few days later, he explained why. He spoke unflinchingly of the darkness he experienced, as though “a black blanket” was draped over his brain with “thousands of tiny hooks” that had burrowed into his mind; an “incessant noise which I can’t turn off and makes me feel as if I am going insane”. He wanted it all to stop. “I wanted to die and give my mind peace,” he said.

He told me about his feelings of hopelessness and despair and the overwhelming worthlessness he felt day after day.


Depression is Not a Choice

Depression leaves many feeling an acute sense of loss of control, that their life is no longer in their own hands as forces beyond them overwhelm everything.

Depression is not a choice; a despair with a switch that can be turned off and on. The build up of circumstances and inner reflections left the man close to me unable to process what it even meant to live. Suicide felt like the only option left.

Five years on, he is in a loving relationship. The healing and hope he now testifies to is a good news story, and suicide was not the final word spoken over his life. He has slowly and carefully discovered how to navigate the darkness, the lighthouse of support and self-awareness enabling him to see the sunrise of a better tomorrow. His story can be a source of encouragement to others.

However, other families will share their own stories of devastation and the lasting pain suicide has left upon their lives. Project Eighty Four seeks to share such stories, raising awareness of male suicide and mental health within the UK, calling on society to take notice so that together we can make a change.

As stories are unearthed and told, we discover a complex picture that does not point to any one singular answer or solution. Even as huge amounts of work within the charity sector is being done to help men open up and share their mental health realities, many still feel isolated, ashamed and unable to discuss their situation because of crippling feelings of failure.

Enabling men to talk is important, yet we also need serious sociological and anthropological studies to help us understand the signs of the times.

There has been a cultural assimilation of identity, a notion that who we are is determined according to what a consumerist, capitalist, society desires us to be. While Western culture encourages the pursuit of discovering one’s ‘true self’, identity is a commodity that capitalism has bought, using it to create wealth at the expense of community flourishing.

The market system has no regard for your own identity, nor the identity of a community, as its only function is to maintain itself. Male identity has been lost in this capitalist maze – an identity that was once shaped in other ways.


Boy to Man

The boy’s journey to manhood within ancient communities was a moment of deep significance. It was a coming of age where, through the rite of passage, he was able to establish his identity within the community; an identity that was wholly shaped by that community.

The ceremony thus functioned as a mode of transformation, the acquisition of a new status. The boy became a warrior. His hero journey completed, he would be accepted into the community with a new status.

Such initiation rites still remain within our consciousness and are common within the story arc of modern superhero films – separation, initiation/trial, return. Communities were shaped through these rites of passage, rituals that often violently transformed a person’s place within that very community.

In the West, war has often served the same function. However, the experience of World War One decimated optimism and hope, leaving an entire generation angry and restless; a deep sense of having been betrayed by the governments that they had willingly fought and sacrificed for. When the war ended, many young men returned home unable to forgive those who had sent them into the trenches.

Exhausted and disillusioned populations were overcome with grief as millions of their nation’s sons never returned. History rhymes, and those feelings of betrayal, anger, and shame are again being felt, for a variety of reasons, and must not be underestimated.

Violence and war, then, have served as an instrument throughout history to shape and determine what it looks like and means to be a man. Whilst narratives of ‘real men’ as warriors and providers are rightfully being challenged and questioned, such discussions have left an anxiety gap. We need to find ways that give space to enable men to express their lived reality.

Communities must work together, in our understanding and pursuit of a ‘maleness’ defined through the lens of compassion and forgiveness, to help bring male suicide to an end. Humanity, in its beautiful equality and diversity, needs to help one another in our understanding of who we are being called to be, in order that we might collectively flourish.

As men and women help one another to stand tall, together, we will rise in our common good.

The Samaritans charity can be contacted for support with feelings of suicide and issues of mental wellbeing.

Reverend Joe Haward is a community and business chaplain


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