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No beating around the bush: The stark reality of men and suicide

Since 2010, there has been an international trend in which we’re seeing more younger males dying by suicide. In 2023, 27 people died by suicide in Malta, with a startling 24 of them being men. 14 of these men were under the age of 45 (Magri, 2024). In recent years, 84 per cent of suicides in Malta were by men (Vassallo, A., 2024) and this statistic is reflected in other countries too, such as the USA (CDC, 2023). In recent years, male suicides have reached an all-time high and we are being called to take notice. Whilst understanding the reason behind these statistics is not so clear-cut, it’s important that we ponder upon what contributes to this scenario.

Gender stereotypes; “Boys don’t cry”

Men tend to be socialised not to give space for emotions which are generally more associated with female traits. The gender norms and stereotypes we have grown up with are reflected in phrases such as “Be a man!” or “Boys don’t cry!”. Such phrases encourage boys and men to detach from their emotional selves so they can cope with the expectations put upon them. However, this is extremely unnatural and we need to ask ourselves, “Why are we uncomfortable with boys and men showing emotion?”

Imposing such expectations on boys means that they do not develop a language for their emotions or allow them the opportunity to develop emotional regulation and healthy coping skills.  Instead, emotions become a source of shame and, in order to cope, they may develop compensatory coping mechanisms which may not be healthy or helpful to their well-being. Since having emotions is not related to gender, but rather a part of the human experience, denying or suppressing emotions can be very unhealthy both mentally and physically. While there is more awareness about this issue, we are far from truly creating a sense of safety for men to acknowledge this part of themselves. Ideally, this sense of safety around emotions starts from childhood and is reflected also in the messages conveyed by society.

The emotion most comfortably associated with males is anger.  It is an emotion that males are given permission to have, and almost expected. This means that other suppressed emotions such as sadness, shame, guilt, fear may be channeled into anger and rage. These emotions are then associated with aggressive behaviour and violence when expressed outwardly, or depression, anxiety and illness when internalised. Either way, men are not being equipped with the skills they need to manage the full range of their human experience.

The stigma that breeds shame and disconnection

Societal stigma and shame can stop boys and men from reaching out for support or even being able to verbalise that they are experiencing some form of emotional or psychological suffering. This leads to further isolation, feelings of loneliness and despair. This is just one possible aspect that affects men’s mental health. If we look at the world today, we may wonder about the pressure and expectations young men face to be successful. In a world which constantly pulls our attention away from our internal selves and focuses more on external values, it’s hard for men to feel connected to themselves and truly understand what’s happening within. Young men are more pressured than ever to chase never-ending superficial goals, something which is perpetuated by social media and advertising in our capitalist society. This leaves men feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled by what truly gives meaning to our human experience and, instead, constantly chasing the next achievement or external representation of ‘success’.

Loneliness and isolation

As humans, we are primed for connection. If we look at our natural selves, human beings developed into communities whereby we depended on each other for survival. We were born into families and communities which were set up in a way that needed each other deeply. Yet nowadays, we live very individualistic lifestyles. We are no longer connected to the community and tend to have more superficial connections that leave us feeling lonely. We are more anxious and depressed because we live a life far removed from how we have naturally developed to be; much like an animal taken out of its natural habitat and put in a zoo, who shows distressed behaviours, we are also showing our distress through the prevalence of anxiety, depression and suicide.

What can we do about it?

Luckily, we are far more complex than an animal at the zoo, and have more opportunities to help ourselves, learn and grow. If every one of us commits to acknowledging and challenging the stigma towards men and mental health, we can start to see a change. May this article be your call to action to be more mindful of how you contribute to breaking this cycle and supporting the males in your life, whether they are growing children or ageing grandparents.

If you are a male yourself, can you start to create a safe space for yourself and your friends by breaking through that first step and being a little more vulnerable. Vulnerability breeds connection. When one person is brave enough to take the conversation to a deeper level and share something more intimate, it permits more people to share on that level. When judgement is replaced with understanding, it leaves everyone feeling closer, more connected and validated. Yet often we are so scared of being misunderstood or criticised, that we don’t take that step. Therefore, I ask you to be kind in your words, generous in your assumptions and to give people the benefit of the doubt and see how this improves your relationships.

Therapy is another great place for men to start to break this stigma, as they share how they feel and receive the care and skills they need to work on improving themselves and their well-being. In my own experience, I enjoy working with males who are curious, albeit hesitant, about this process and then watching them engage and flourish as they find safety in the relationship. As humans, we are more than capable of growth and change and this can happen when we feel safe, supported and often best in relation to another; in simple terms, we cannot and should not do it alone. And we should not wait for someone else to ‘fix’ this problem; let’s start today in our daily actions and with our friends and family by embodying the change we want to see.

If you need urgent support or you are in a crisis, please call the national support line 179/1770 or Emergency Services 112.

References

  1. 27 people died by suicide in 2023 – timesofmalta.com
  2. 84% tas-suwiċidji fl-aħħar 11-il sena saru mill-irġiel – TVMnews.mt
  3. Suicide Data and Statistics | Suicide Prevention | CDC
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About Gillian Balani

Gillian graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work in 2012, after which she went to work in a number of different services ranging from community social work and development, adoption services and children’s residential care. She has worked in Kenya, India and with different cultural communities in Malta, after which she went on to graduate with a Master’s in Counseling so as to support people therapeutically.

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