For Many Men, the Struggle is Real

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In the last year and a half, I have been connected peripherally to 4 deaths by suicide. All four were white, middle to upper socioeconomic class men in their 40s, all four of them fathers. The statistics say that this specific group’s rate of death by suicide is rising.

I don’t have intimate knowledge of all of their stories, but I do believe all of them were so trapped in their own despair they couldn’t see past it to the devastation of their friends and families. Economic downturn and financial difficulties can leave men, even more than women, feel that they have failed their family. Men also are less apt to discuss their feelings or seek professional help.

Each suicide leaves in its aftermath an average of 6 intimate family members, and hundreds of other friends, family, and acquaintances. These survivors are left to wonder what they missed and what they could have done differently. They must pick up the pieces of their broken lives; tragically, many never do. Depression, suicide and divorce rates all increase after such a loss.

Stigma prevents many from even disclosing cause of death. There is a lot of sympathy for people whose family members have died from cancer, heart disease, and accidents. Those who have lost family members to suicide don’t always get the same sympathy. If they are brave enough to be truthful about the cause, many families face judgment, shame and ostracization. Their identity often becomes “the one whose [father, sister, grandfather] killed themselves.” If a family doesn’t disclose cause of death to the public, they carry a secret with them that can overwhelm and destroy them.

Many people think suicide is selfish — which I can understand, particularly when one has children. However, I also understand that some people genuinely feel they are reducing the burden on their family. An individual who is seriously depressed has “tunnel vision” where they don’t see any way out.   They may have tried everything to no avail, and just can’t fight anymore, similar to a cancer patient who refuses chemotherapy after years of unsuccessful treatment.

Thomas Joiner, a leading expert in suicide, says three elements need to be in place before a suicide attempt: thwarted belongingness (“I am alone”), perceived burdensomeness, (“I am a burden”), and capability for suicide (“I am not afraid to die”). A person at that point is in an immense amount of pain. Perhaps we need to find different ways to reach them.

We were privileged to have Sally Spencer Thomas speak at the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Network Summit in September. Spencer Thomas has created what she calls “man therapy,” based on the premise that men don’t reach out or communicate the way women do. Traditional “talk therapy” may not work for men. Man therapy’s resources are based online which has been shown to be a more comfortable medium for men.   In the UK, CALM (the Campaign against Living Miserably) has a hotline, web chat and website geared specifically towards men ages 20-45.

My hope for the new year is a decrease in the stigma that prevents people from reaching out, as well as empathy for those who have to no avail. And, as always, a culture of kindness and an awareness that for many, the struggle is very real.

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