Could sex education help break the taboo around male suicide?
By the end of today, 12 men in the UK will have taken their own life. Suicide is preventable, yet remains the most likely cause of death for our brothers, fathers, sons or, as in my case – uncles – until the age of 45. Alarmingly, three quarters of completed suicides involve male subjects.
We all have men in our lives who we love, care about and want to keep safe, and it is my biggest wish that no other family has to experience a bereavement by suicide. Yet it’s rare we have open and frank conversations about the topic, and I can’t help but think: why is that?
The more I reflect, and the more conversations I have with my male friends, the more I believe it’s because we still view suicide, and having suicidal thoughts, as taboo, or abnormal. This isn’t all that surprising when you consider suicide was only decriminalised in England and Wales in 1961.
OFF THE TABLE
Generally speaking, men are expected to be strong, dependable and able to provide security and financial support. However, these stereotypes don’t do any justice to the complexity of what it means, or how it feels, to be a man. Rather, they lead us to blurt out futile expressions like “man up” and “pull yourself together”, or to have awkward reactions to seeing men cry.
Is it really any wonder men might not feel able to talk openly about the challenges they face, for fear of judgement? Instead, we all stay silent and suicide remains shrouded in stigma. Because the thing is, it’s uncomfortable to talk about suicide like it’s uncomfortable to talk about sex, especially with our children. Often it’s tempting to think: “If we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen – our kids won’t have sex”. It’s equally tempting to think the same with suicide. The biggest fear I hear from people is they think that by talking about the unthinkable, they’ll plant a seed in someone’s head. But we know this isn’t true.
Suicide prevention organisations, such as Samaritans, tell us talking openly and responsibly about suicide is important to help reduce the feelings of shame and the stigma associated with it and ensure people receive the appropriate support. A study for NHS Digital published in 2016 also revealed one-in-five adults has considered taking their own life at some point – although, I would hazard a guess this figure is, in reality, a lot higher.
Perhaps the greater issue is most of us wouldn’t have a clue how to respond to someone who told us they were having suicidal thoughts, because we’ve never received training or education on the subject.
So, what can we learn from how we approach sex education to help us start conversations about suicide?
We know there are risks associated with sex – pregnancy and STIs, as well as emotional implications. And we take those risks seriously. Sex education has evolved since the 1940s and will become compulsory in all schools in England from 2020. Pupils will learn about what makes a healthy relationship, as well as sex itself and related issues including sexting, pornography and harassment.
I’m not suggesting the current system is perfect – I’m sure you all remember your sex-ed classes and cringe at the thought – but they got us talking, and thinking, more openly about sex. Moreover, sex education has been shown to increase young people’s knowledge about sexual risks, the use of contraceptives and even delay sex. Most parents (and teenagers) dread having the conversation about how babies are made, but we know it’s important to keep our children safe, so we do it anyway, even though it makes us feel awkward.
Through accepting that sex happens, and talking about how to stay safe, we reduce the risks and help break down the taboo.
IT’S GOOD TO TALK
So, what if we did the same with suicide? What if we accepted suicidal thoughts are something that might happen for the men (and women) in our lives and we started talking openly and responsibly about them? What if we introduced compulsory suicide awareness education into the school curriculum which helped us to converse about the topic responsibly?
If we provided basic training on how to have these difficult conversations, informed people about the support that’s readily available and kept educating ourselves throughout our lives on the evolving pressures and risk factors, would it help? The appointment of Jackie Doyle- Price MP as Under Secretary of State for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention provides hope we will see improved national and local government efforts to reduce suicide, and we can all take small steps to help overcome the stigma that surrounds the topic.
Could you go home tonight and talk to the man in your life about suicide, regardless of how uncomfortable it makes you – or him – feel? Can you ask if he’s ever had suicidal thoughts and listen to him without judgement, tell him you love him, and reassure him it’s OK to feel whatever he feels? It might be scary, but it could also allow him to redefine what “being a man” means – and ultimately, help save a life.