Why some boys cry themselves to death

Nick Fisher on the terrors of male adolescence
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Teenagers have never had it so good. They are taller, stronger, fitter, with better teeth and less chance of falling foul of infectious disease than ever before. Yet many of them are suicidally miserable. Especially the boys. According to a report compiled by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, the number of boys between 15 and 19 who take their own lives has risen by 45 per cent, whereas the number of suicides among teenage girls has fallen by 24 per cent. Girls are coping well with the Nineties. Boys are sinking fast.

For women, there is a chronological culture of Agony, with problem pages at the core of the many magazines packed with features on how to cope with life's difficulties. It starts off innocent and spotty with Big, gets curious with Just Seventeen, sexy with More!, technically explicit with Company and Cosmo, family-oriented with Woman and Woman's Own, worrying with Women's Realm, then it's People's Friend and you're dead. Women share the intimate details of their lives, throughout their lives, in magazines.

Men don't. Boys don't. What is there for teenage boys to read that explores the emotional complexities of growing up? Nothing. Railway Modeller and Shoot! provide absolutely no insight into the pressures and fears you will face in relationships, friendships and all that life can deliver.

Seven years ago, the agony aunt of Just Seventeen began to receive a few letters from boys to her column. I was roped in to answer them as it seemed more appropriate that a man should deal with young men's problems.

The number of letters each week would vary, but the central problem remained the same. The penis. All boys were worried about was the thing that nestled in the pit of their boxers. "Is it too small?" "How big should it be?" "My mate's is bigger", "Which bit do I measure it from?" "Why won't it go hard?" "Why is it hard all the time?"

As time has progressed, so have teenage boys' problems. As more write in with their worries, so the problems deepen and widen. Teenage girls' problems remain the same year after year. With boys, it seems we are only now tapping into a deep vein of confusion and grief.

A teenage boy's greatest fear is from his peers. To be known among your mates for having a tiny dick, an ugly girlfriend or, the absolute worst of all, for being gay, is tantamount to social leprosy. And teenage boys can be immensely cruel to each other. Often, they delight in others' unhappiness and misfortune.

To show weakness and ask for help is like putting your neck on the block. So many boys finish their letters with lines like: "I'm writing to you because I've no one else to turn to", "I can't talk about this to my friends/parents/teacher" or "I could never go to a doctor about this". They live their lives and contain their fears in a gut-wrenching world of isolation.

It's the bottling up of emotions which leads so many boys to attempt suicide and the violent methods they choose that too frequently end in death. Girls, on the other hand, seem to have a much healthier ability to share and discuss their problems. Their attempts at suicide are much less violent and so more often unsuccessful.

Ironically, as girls become more educated and powerful in their knowledge of sex and relationships, boys become more fearful of them. Boys regularly write to me about feeling bullied into starting to have sex by their girlfriends. They feel ill-equipped and ignorant compared to their partners. They're scared that girls will laugh at the size of their penis, or ridicule them for being sexually unworldly and unable to "perform".

The greatest fear is that they'll fail as lovers, and so the girl in question will tell all her mates how useless he was and their mates will in turn tell all his mates, the end result being that he's a laughing stock among his peers.

Many teenaged boys are deeply unhappy because they feel so alone. They can't talk to their peers for fear of being ridiculed, they're unsure of trusting girls, they have nowhere to write and frequently have distant or absent fathers.

Teenage girls have periods and can get pregnant. This means most mothers take it upon themselves at some time to talk about puberty, changing bodies and maybe even touch on sex and contraception. Teenage boys can sail through adolescence and on into manhood without anyone ever taking a blind bit of notice.

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