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Suicide: the bane of masculinity

As I casually flicked through my Twitter feed I remember the feeling of sadness at seeing another icon of my youth, Keith Flint of ‘The Prodigy’ had committed suicide.  The feeling instantly took me back to how I felt in July 2017, when Chester Bennington of Linkin Park, committed suicide too.  I was heartbroken.  The music of both The Prodigy and Linkin Park elicit fond memories from my teenage years and fill my head and my heart with thoughts and feelings of an optimistic youth with his best years ahead of him.  This is the gift both Keith and Chester gave to me and I will forever be grateful to their pioneering geniuses.  Gifts given to me and millions of fans around the world who were uplifted by the energy in both their music and their on stage performances and consoled by the poignancy of their lyrics.

Two picture merged into one; the first is Chester Bennington on Linkin Park and the second is Keith Flint of The Prodigy

When we lose icons like Chester and Keith as well as men like Chris Cornell from Soundgarden and Audioslave to suicide, it brings the subject to the fore and creates discussions but how many men are seeing suicide as a serious threat to both themselves and their families? Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45.  Bigger than any cancer.  Suicide claims more lives of British men under 45 years of age than anything else, so shouldn’t we be doing something about it? While suicide affects women, it doesn’t claim nearly as many lives, with the figure being roughly a third of the male suicide rate and yet there is a higher rate of depression diagnosis in women.  There are 15.5 male deaths per 100,000, in the UK, compared to women, with the figure standing at 4.9 female deaths per 100,000.  The figures for death by suicide in the United States and Australia, both show similar trends.  Men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women, in Australia and in the United States, that figure rises to men being 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women.

So why do more men commit suicide than women?

Well, we can identify several ‘risk factors’ and one of the biggest risk factors I am aware of and a risk factor many of my male clients identify as a major issue, is communication, or lack of it.  We could put it down to women being more “open” and willing to share their thoughts, feelings and emotions, while men “bottle it up” and feel less able to tell their loved ones or friends what “going on for them” but is it as simple and as straightforward as that? For too long I feel it is true that western society has for generation after generation encouraged men to be “strong” and to not admit when they are struggling but that’s why many of my clients who seek counselling for men contact me because they realise that they do need to talk to someone.  The problem is, by the time they come to me for counselling, they’ve already had many years of experience of not talking about the anxieties.  And its not just how men feel emotionally either.  If there is something physically wrong with a man, they are less likely than women to put themselves into the vulnerable position of asking for help.  The ‘Health and Social Care bill’ found that men visited their GP’s 20% less frequently than women.  It’s not that men don’t have the same issues as women but it’s that men are less likely to share a problem preferring to resolutely say “I’ll be fine”.  This attitude puts men at a greater risk of suicide.

What are the other risk factors?

While it’s not unusual to hear of women in the UK drinking excessively, the Samaritans advise that men are more likely to turn to alcohol to when they are in distress, with alcohol being a known risk factor for suicide.  Another major risk factor of male suicide is employment.  Men are traditionally the “main bread winner” so when unemployment rises as a result of economic downturn, we see an increase in the number of suicides.    A study by Bristol, Manchester and Oxford University, estimated that an additional 1,000 suicides and “30 to 40 thousand” attempts were made as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.  While money worries can understandably contribute to a man considering suicide, the reduction in finances, is the tip of the iceberg.  Simon Gunning, the CEO of Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) says “We’re brought up our entire lives to judge ourselves in comparison with our peers and to be economically successful.  When there are economic factors we can’t control, it becomes very difficult.”

What can be done?

To reduce the number of male deaths by suicide, attitudes towards talking about suicide need to change.  If we become more comfortable about talking about suicide, we can become more able to help someone who might be suffering with suicidal thoughts.  Here are some ways you can help someone you feel could be contemplating suicide:

Know the warning signs:

  • Mood changes – a sudden change from sad to happy can appear as though someone is in “a better place” but it could also be because they have decided that they are prepared to commit suicide.
  • Withdrawal – be aware of people who are not going out or socialising as much as they once did.
  • Changes to sleeping and eating patterns – someone who eats or sleeps excessively can be a warning sign as much as someone who can’t sleep or doesn’t eat.
  • A lack of energy or seeming “run down” – someone who is lethargic may be struggling.
  • Poor personal hygiene – if someone isn’t showering, brushing their teeth or wearing clean clothes, could be suffering from poor mental health.
  • Drink/drugs/gambling – excessive drinking, gambling and drug taking, can be warning signs that someone has “more going on in their lives” than they are letting on.
  • Recklessness – a person who is “risk taking” may be in danger.
  • Anger issues – Someone who is easily irritable or seems “always angry”, is possibly struggling with mental health issues.

What can I do to help someone who may be suicidal?

  • Be there for them.  Give them space to talk, if they need it.
  • Don’t pressure them to talk to you if they really don’t want to.
  • It’s also ok to ask someone if they feel suicidal.  While it can be a scary thing to do, it shows the person that someone is paying attention to them, which can make a difference.
  • Try to help the person explore their feelings and it may seem hard but try not to be judgemental if the person is drinking too much or dependant on drugs.  They probably realise that already and if they feel judged they’re more likely to respond negatively and reject your help.
  • If the person agrees, remove anything that could be used to take their life.
  • Get some help – you can call a GP’s surgery, 999 or take them to A&E but stay with them.
  • Get support – it’s tough hearing that someone you love or care for is thinking of suicide and it can leave many people feeling upset.  Get support from other friends or family members but if you don’t feel you are able to, there agencies who can support you.

Useful contacts

guitarist-on-stage-playing-to-an-obscured-crowd

Anxiety struggles for pop star

I read an article today about the pop star, Olly Murs and his battle with anxiety. He talks about a mistake he made on the tv show ‘X Factor’ and how he found counselling had helped him get over the anxiety of making the mistake again.  He talks about how he was struggling with negative automatic thoughts such as “Why am I doing this? I can’t do it. What if I go and say something bad again on TV? What if I make a mistake?”, when he was offered a role on another show ‘The Voice’.

According to Olly (calling him ‘Olly’ sounds like I know him, which feels a bit strange), he was the target of ‘online trolls’.  While I couldn’t tell you about the levels of abuse he experienced, it demonstrates how heavily we can be affected by the thoughts, feelings and opinions of others. Murs goes on to say (calling him Murs isn’t any better, it sounds like I don’t like him either!) “And I made myself ill, literally ill. Sick with worry and anxiety to the point where I was home for three or four days with sweats, headaches, and I never get ill. I felt really tired and lethargic and hot and my heart was, I was having panic attacks”.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. — Confucius

This man was affected so badly, his anxiety levels spiralled out of control to the point he was physically sick. And yet, he had probably not met any of those people who abused him and likely never will. So what was going on with Olly Murs and why did these people cause him so much anxiety? I should point out here, I don’t know a lot about Olly Murs and I’m only working with the information I have but as human beings, we are constantly taking in “data” from our “perceptual field” such as what our friends think about what we are wearing, who likes the music we like, who makes me feel angry, who makes me feel happy, etc etc and what we do with this data is where the “problem” can occur.

To understand why the opinions of others can cause us so much anxiety, we have to go back to childhood. We learn at a very young age how to “get our needs met”. For example, babies quickly learn that if they cry when they are hungry, someone will come and feed them. A baby gets its needs met by crying until somebody comes and feeds them. The baby learns that each time they cry, they will be fed.

As a baby learns how to get milk, young children learn what gets them into trouble and what doesn’t. A child will learn what it will get praise for and what it doesn’t get praised for. If we get a good score in a test, we get praise. If we kick a football through a window, we get into trouble. And it’s usually in childhood we find the root of our problems and the causes of much of our anxiety. If a child learns that the best way to avoid getting into trouble is to do what their Mum or Dad says (or primary care giver to be totally inclusive) then this is often a learnt behaviour which is carried into adulthood.

A star is born!

Many performers in the public eye or “celebrities” find this “skill” very useful. By learning to please Mum and Dad they get praise. If they are a talented singer for example, they will find they get praise from lots of other people too. They quickly become known as “the child who is really good at singing” and this is either incorporated into the persons self concept or not. In the case of a performer, it would most likely be taken in and becomes part of their self; a star is born! The problem or so it seems like to me it is in Olly Murs’ case, is that he didn’t know what to do with the criticism. And when I say he didn’t know what to do with it I mean he didn’t know how to incorporate it into his self concept.

Hard times don’t create heroes. It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed. – Bob Riley

While I’m only speculating here, maybe there was a time in his childhood when he found a way to get his needs met by entertaining people. Maybe that was singing or dancing or making people laugh. It is possible he found that he was given attention by making people take notice of him and he enjoyed the confidence he got from it. We could speculate that there’s part of him thats not so sure of himself and not so confident and when the internet trolls said things that didn’t “fit” with what he usually heard about himself, that didn’t fit with his self concept of a confident man, he found it incredibly hard to accept and couldn’t incorporate it into his self concept, otherwise known as an ‘introject’.

We all need to be like Rambo, don’t we?

I think most men out there can probably relate to how that feels. When I was a child, I used to watch tv shows like ‘the A-Team’ with B.A (Bad Attitude) Baracus, ‘He-Man’, ‘Thundercats’, WWF/E Wrestling’ and movies like ‘Die-Hard’, ‘Rambo’ and ‘Predator’ all which featured macho heroes who saved the day! All big strong guys with lots of confidence and no sign of anxiety!

Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears. – Les Brown

This made me think all guys were “macho” and if you weren’t saving the world, there was something wrong with you. If you lacked confidence you weren’t a “real man”. I found it really difficult to accept if anybody said anything about me that could be deemed “feminine” or touched on my emotions.  Another problem was I found it really hard to take any praise for anything that I didn’t consider to be masculine and found it even harder to tell people how I felt for fear of being “a sissy”. I certainly couldn’t tell anyone I was lacking in confidence or I felt anxiety about something!

There’s no way He-man had anxiety, did he?

As I got older, I really struggled with my own sense of self. I wasn’t built like a truck with huge rippling biceps and I wasn’t a member of the SAS! My confidence was really lacking but couldn’t admit it. I noticed lots of things made me anxious but I wouldn’t tell anyone. I really struggled to accept myself for who I was. And this is where counselling can help. We take the opinions of others such as our parents, friends, relatives, tv, magazines, movies, social media etc and we use the information provided to us to get our needs met.

In my case, I thought that because I saw a lot of machoism on tv that was what the world wanted me to be; a confident man who never talked about his “feelings” because nothing worried him enough to have to. When I couldn’t be what I thought I should be, it caused psychological tension with the real me; my authentic self and this resulted in a great deal of anxiety.

My authentic self just wanted to be me and the me who wanted to play video games and kick a football around, not join the army and fight in a war I didn’t agree with the politics of (Iraq)! It took time and a lot of counselling but eventually I learn’t that counselling can be for me and men can ask for help without having to fear being called “weak” or “girly”.

Believe in yourself. You are braver than you think, more talented than you know, and capable of more than you imagine. ― Roy T. Bennett

If you feel a sense of anxiety about who you are and feel as though you “lack confidence”, I’ve been there. I know what it’s like and I know what it takes to accept yourself. I can help. If you’re looking for a counsellor who understands and can put themselves in your shoes and feel how you feel, get in touch.

If you need help with anxiety, I can help

I’ve helped many men with anxiety and I can help you too.

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