To everyone who knew him Dan McAllister was handsome, popular, funny and talented, with a smile that lit up every room. However, this was not the full story. Like many other men in Britain today, Dan didn’t talk openly about emotions or thoughts that did not fit with his image of strength and being a “man”. As a result he felt unable to ask for help and tried to deal with his problems alone. Like too many others he failed.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men and women under 35 in the UK. Research published by the Office for National Statistics revealed that of 5,981 suicides in 2012 in the UK, an astonishing 4,590 (76%) were men. Moreover since 2007, the male suicide rate has risen steadily, and in 2014 it was estimated that men were three times more likely to die by suicide than women. These deaths are preventable. Male suicide is an issue recognized by charities such as CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), and by celebrities such as Professor Green who lost his father to suicide.
SToRMS believes that gender stereotypes may be a factor contributing to the high rates of suicide in men. Phrases such as “stop acting like a little girl” remain in common usage. These perpetuate stereotypes that are negative for both boys and girls: only girls cry and ask for help, only boys are strong. This is obviously not true but until society views and accepts everyone as individuals, rather than either stereotypical boys or girls, some of our young men will continue to feel unable to ask for help. No-one should feel they have to deal with their problems alone.
The Samaritans also recognise this as an issue. On their website, they present research showing that “men compare themselves against a ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility.”
Challenging the definition of a ‘real man’ is crucial in any efforts to reduce male suicide. We must teach our sons (and daughters) that strength comes in sharing your problems and seeking help rather than facing issues alone. This is not a gender issue. We should all be able to express our emotions and listen to each other without judging and without being influenced by damaging gender stereotypes. This will take a significant shift in societal norms so will not be easy to achieve. Until that point we must help our boys understand that a real man is one who defines his own beliefs, values and identity on his own terms, instead of struggling to adhere to generic and possibly unattainable gender stereotypes. This aim will feature in all of our strategies.
Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.