I read/listened to an interesting article about suicide the other day.
The conversation about self-harm/suicide has been buoyed recently by the Netflix series ’13 Reasons Why’, and while I haven’t seen the show – as a therapist, I’m glad that the conversation about suicide is more readily on the table these days. Increasing awareness of the reality of suicidality, and helping us get more comfortable asking questions around safety and self-harm is an important task.
But it’s really important to know that suicide isn’t just an issue that impacts bullied school kids.
What many people may not know is that the rates of completed suicide are actually the highest in males, with some research suggesting that 74.6% of suicides are completed by men. While women attempt suicide more often, men’s methods of suicide are often more lethal. Suicide in males peaks between the ages of 40-60, and again after 80 years of age.
Shocking, isn’t it?
When I started as a therapist I thought I would work with younger folks – maybe school aged kids or older teens. Yet as work unfolded over the years I’ve actually shied away from the kids and adolescents and focused more time and energy on working with adults. And when folks ask me if I have a preferred age to work with, it’s frequent that I respond with men. Specifically men in the 35-55 year old category.
I know. It surprised me too.
This is a cohort that often exhibits low emotional literacy, or in other words, men struggle to put language to their feelings. Mostly in part because they haven’t been taught how to do this well. Cultural narratives in early childhood and throughout development have often suggested that men need to be tough, strong, and hold it together. Showing vulnerability or emotion is often frowned upon as feminine, weak, or unacceptable.
Yet even though older males can be a really neat group to work with, it can be hard to get men to come to therapy. Yet what I find in counselling men is that when they muster up the courage to push past the stigma of men seeking help with emotions, they often tend to be a very committed group of folks. Sitting with men as they work to better understand themselves, their body responses, and their feelings, and watching them learn it can be safe to feel (sometimes for the first time) is pretty sacred space.
Us ladies may not be as aware of some of the barriers men face in getting to a therapists office. Shame around asking for help, fear of having to sit and talk about things they may not have words for, and deeply held beliefs around vulnerability as weakness are hard to overcome.
But without help, men are left to navigate pain and overwhelm all on their own.
Shannon Sampert, who is interviewed in the article above, suggests that men may turn to self-harming behaviours much like children to manage emotion. Only in men these behaviours aren’t typically cutting as it is with younger folks, rather it may present in things like driving too fast, engaging in multiple affairs, or drinking too much. This can lead to depression, which when coupled with a lack of skill in navigating feelings and a cultural tendency to encourages stoicism in males, can lead to suicide being an escape from emotional pain.
The peak ages of suicide for men, between 40 and 60, and over 80, seem to reflect life stages that can leave men extra vulnerable – as during these times it is not uncommon for buffers of safety, like marriage, social structures that revolve around kid activities (like hockey), work relationships, and laudable accomplishments to be challenged through divorce, careers plateauing, grown children, retirement, death of friends, or the death of a spouse. It is not uncommon for men to have relied upon social networks built by spouses, or to feel buoyed by the act of climbing the corporate ladder, and if these circumstances are challenged or changed, men often have low resources and low capacity to address the potential discomfort of their new realities.
So then what? What do we do about the reality that this is a population that may walk painful roads in hiding? Sampert suggests that utilizing community based initiatives such as theater, wood working shops, and other avenues of connecting men can be a significant resource to help support men socially and emotionally. Perhaps joining a walking club or biking group, or meeting regularly with some folks to go fishing on the weekend can provide men with experiences to bond.
Sampert highlights that traditional talk therapies are not always as effective for men as they may be for women, as guys often lack the language to be able to put emotion into words. I agree with her, in part, as I see men struggle with emotional communication. Yet I’m remiss to write off talk therapy as a potential intervention, because my experience as a counsellor has shown me again and again just how capable men are of learning how to feel, name, and express emotion – many of them simply haven’t had the chance. We can’t do what we don’t know. And when we don’t know something, we learn.
So guys…if you’re in a spot where you’re feeling more than you think you’re capable of holding please know you’re not the only guy who feels this way. And also hear this: you don’t have to do it alone. I’m sorry you’ve been fooled by culture, the media, maybe your own parents – and that you’ve been fed the lie that feeling is weak, asking for help makes you less of a man. Asking for help really just makes you human.
Find a safe space to plug in…whether it’s a group of guys hanging out, or meeting with a therapist one-on-one. You’re not alone. Your feelings matter. And lots of you guys out there (and ladies too) haven’t had the chance to learn how to safely feel big emotions – you don’t struggle because you’re incapable, not strong, or not good enough. You likely just haven’t been taught how to handle all you feel. So give yourself some credit, and trust that it’s not too late to learn something new.
Change is possible.
Reaching out is not weak.
Help is waiting.