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September 18, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Why Did He Do It? Men’s Health and Suicide

CW: Suicide

 

Suicide is a much bigger issue than many people realise. New Zealand’s youth suicide rate (20–25 year olds) is the second worst in the developed world. New Zealand’s teen suicide rate (15–19 year olds) is the worst in the developed world. The number of suicides in New Zealand has risen over the last four years — according to the Coroner’s Office, 2014/2015 saw 564 New Zealanders take their own lives, in 2015/2016 it rose to 579, and in 2016/2017 it rose again to 606. Of the 606, over 450 of them were men.

 

The Shoe Project at Parliament. Newshub. 2017.

The Shoe Project at Parliament. Newshub. 2017.

 

“I’m so sorry mum x” was the note left by my best friend, when he hung himself on New Year’s day, 2013.

He was smart, popular, a gifted athlete, and a wonderful friend. Why did he do it? I asked myself when I found out.

At 15-years old, I understood he must have been struggling, and he must have been struggling for a long time. But I never understood why he struggled so much, and why he didn’t look for help.

Following his death, I lost my sense of self; knowing I would no longer make memories with him, or share experiences growing up together. Why had I not noticed that he was in trouble? Why had he never gone to anyone for help?

I never talked about it with anyone, and swept all my feelings about his death under the rug. And it’s obvious he did the same, never talking to anyone about how he felt. Within a week I was back to my normal life. My parents were worried about me, noticing I had not taken the time to grieve. Eventually I helped scatter his ashes with his mum. Once again, I just pushed on and acted like nothing happened. I never said anything to anyone about how I felt about his suicide. He never said anything to anyone about how he felt either. His mum and I knew him better than anyone. Neither of us saw it coming, and we both were left asking the same questions.

Since his suicide I have known three other men who have taken their own lives. While suicide is not a gender-specific issue, the rate at which men are killing themselves is extremely high. New Zealand has limited support for those suffering from mental health issues, and especially for those who are suicidal. That needs to change.

The Ministry of Health released a suicide data and statistics report on December 21, 2016, with the aim of making New Zealanders “understand” suicide. The report states that suicide is often attributable to a number of factors, rather than just one issue. These factors can include mental health issues; exposure to trauma, such as disaster; family violence; abuse; a lack of social support, such as living alone; and experiencing stressful life events, such as chronic pain, discrimination, bullying, relationship conflict, job or financial loss. A factor pertinent to the specific issue of male suicide, but left out of the report, is the attitudes of and about men in New Zealand.

New Zealand men are “blokes”. Tough. Staunch. Bold. However, these attitudes also prevent men from talking about mental health. We do not like to talk; we feel weak and vulnerable when we do. I know that I am guilty of this — it took me four years to talk to someone about how my friend’s death made me feel. This attitude, that talking about feelings makes us weak and exposed, can and does lead to suicide. Because when we do not talk, everything starts to pile up, and the small things start to feel like big things.

In addition to this “blokey” attitude, the current support systems in place in New Zealand are inadequate at addressing suicide prevention. Although the government is working to raise awareness, awareness needs to be coupled with action.

Support services for people struggling with suicidal thoughts are stretched thin. A survey of nearing 6000 paramedics, nurses, mental health workers, and support staff found that 90% felt that the healthcare system was understaffed and underresourced. The same proportion also said that funding was affecting access to healthcare, and 72% of those surveyed said that their workload and work pressures were unreasonable.

Support systems that address mental health and suicide intervention for men specifically are limited. Man Alive is a charitable group whose goal is to “actively promote positive manhood and strong relationships through a range of integrated services.” They have special counselling which is held by men, for men. This specialised approach is a positive step in the right direction, but the responsibility for aiding men who are experiencing suicidal thoughts cannot lie with one charitable group.  

On March 3 the government made a commitment to reduce the number of suicides in New Zealand by 20% over the next ten years. But on July 16, that target was removed. Health Minister Jonathan Coleman’s office instead chose to focus less on statistics, opting for the phrasing: “reduce rates of suicide.” This has been labelled by Mental Health Advocate and comedian Mike King as a “political move” to ensure that the policy will not amount to a failed “accountability measure” for the government if a target is not achieved.

This “paraphrasing” went against the advice of an expert panel that was set up to combat the high suicide rate, consisting of four members who, collectively, have expertise in suicide prevention, Māori youth suicide, tikanga Māori, and media. This panel was quoted saying “using the clear, measurable target was the best way to get the whole country on board and help cut the suicide rate.”

While government action is needed, societal shifts also have an important role to play in changing the culture around male suicide. Talking about our problems needs to be less taboo, and society needs to show men that they do have avenues to take when they feel under stress, or depressed.

I miss my best friend, I always will, but I no longer question why he did it. Questioning it will not change the outcome. What needs to happen is we need to work harder on preventing suicide, and the systems that are currently in place need to be reworked to make sure that they are not failing people. And we need to let men and boys know that they are not alone in struggle, it is okay to reach out to someone, and it is okay to talk about it.

***

If you’ve been experiencing depressive thoughts on a regular basis, or are finding yourself experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, or just want to talk to someone about your own mental health, then please reach out and get in touch with a professional. If it’s an emergency please call 111.

Mauri Ora: Kelburn 04 463 5308, Pipitea 04 463 7474, or email student-health@vuw.ac.nz

Youthline: 0800 376 633, free text 234, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

Capital & Coast DHB Te Haika / Mental Health Crisis Team: 04 494 9169 or 0800 745 477 (24 hours).

Suicide Crisis Helpline (for those in distress, or know someone who is): 0508 828 865

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 / www.depression.org.nz.

 

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