Male suicide is a public health crisis – so why are we still ignoring it?

Men like me still feel ashamed to ask for help, and with NHS mental health services failing it’s no wonder

Jack McKenna
Tuesday 17 November 2015 13:51
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Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

“Things like that don’t happen to people like me”. That’s what I’d told myself for years. What did I have to be depressed about? Nothing at all, actually, but that isn’t the way it works.

There’s nothing to make you reconsider your assumptions quite like sitting in a room with someone you’ve never met while they ask you to rank your suicidal feelings on a scale of one to 10. I doubt I’ll ever forget what the doctor told me, or the way he said it. “Please don’t spend too much time by yourself, that would be a risk”, as if he was telling me not to drink too many fizzy drinks.

I wouldn’t even know where to start in describing what rock bottom feels like, apart from to say that I wouldn’t wish for anyone else to find out. Mental illness isn’t pleasant and it certainly isn’t easy to talk about. That is why it has taken me so long to be able to discuss my problems and seek help - and that is why so many thousands of other people suffer alone and in silence.

In this country we have a problem that we can’t shy away from anymore. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45, and last year 12 men died by their own hand every single day. That is a public health crisis, but we aren’t talking about it enough.

There is some evidence that attitudes are slowly changing. Mental healthcare is higher up the political agenda than ever before, with politicians from across the spectrum promising “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health. Yet the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness is still a huge problem, with a recent CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) survey finding that many men stay silent about their problems because they felt ashamed and didn’t want to talk about their feelings or make a fuss.

These fears can be worse than the illness itself, and they are what made me bottle my own problems up and resist help. But I don’t see how the situation can even begin to change without more men speaking up saying that it isn’t a sign of weakness to suffer.

More men feeling able to talk about their problems and seek help would be a step in the right direction. That said, improvement in attitudes alone can’t serve as a substitute for resources and the funding of services that help people when they need it. Not only are we not talking about it enough, we aren’t doing enough about it, and the combination of the two has created a situation that is unsustainable and untenable.

Back in 2013, Dr Martin Baggaley, medical director of the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, warned that our mental health services are in a “real crisis.” I live just down the road from the Maudsley Hospital and I’d like to invite the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to come with me to help him get a sense of the distance between the Government’s rhetoric about “parity of esteem” and the situation in the real world.

Better still, I’d like to ask him to call the psychologist who left me a panicked voicemail last week because my phone was switched off and she was worried about me. She said my local trust just doesn’t have the capacity to help me at the moment, but she seems to be trying to by herself anyway. I’m staggered at the capacity of mental health professionals to work under the strain that they face every day and help so many people in their darkest hours of need. I haven’t been failed by the system, but the honest truth is that the system has been failed by our political leaders.

As the state retreats further, charities will step in to try and fill the void and help the people who reach out for help. As social services are stripped back to the bare bones more people will fall back on our already stretched accident and emergency departments when illness leads them to a crisis.

On Thursday, to mark International Men’s Day, MPs will debate male suicide in the House of Commons. I’m sure that at least one contribution will reference Health and Safety Executive figures showing that mental health problems are the number one cause of lost workdays in the UK. But this isn’t an economic issue, or a debate about boosting productivity; this is a moral issue and the question is one of humanity.

There isn’t an easy answer, but we can’t ignore the problem. We can’t just hope that it will go away because - trust me - it won't. The fact that male suicide is the biggest killer of young men is evidence of how far we have come, but before too long it will become evidence of how far we have yet to go.

Only by being more open in our attitudes towards mental health can we move towards a society that seeks to prevent a crisis from happening in the first place rather than picking up the pieces after. That is something worth fighting for, and that is why I’ve decided to speak out.

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