Dead Men: Our Quiet Suicide Epidemic

In journalism school we’re taught to avoid covering suicide outside of extreme circumstances. There’s a multitude of potential ramifications: copycats, contagion, grieving families looking to maintain privacy, and the stigma surrounding exploiting someone’s personal choice for public profit.
I grew up in a culture where suicide was considered the coward’s way out. People who took their own lives were eternally smeared. We were led to believe they were only thinking of themselves, leaving loved ones to sort out the ‘why’ and pick up the pieces. They left behind responsibilities, tagging themselves with the mark of giving up on life.
It was a dastardly act, heinous and frowned upon; shameful, something to hide and bury as quickly as possible. Males in particular were told to toughen up and grit it out. If you killed yourself, you were no doubt less of a man. You couldn’t hack it, you couldn’t cut it in this rough and callous world. Sympathy and empathy were hard to come by, like squeezing blood from a very stubborn stone.
To be honest, I think this is bullshit.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

In 2011 Dan Bilsker published a piece in the British Columbia Medical Journal titled The Silent Epidemic of Male Suicide. In his report, Bilsker outlined the ghostlike crisis we’ve been actively ignoring for years with glaring ineptitude.
Suicide is one of the top three causes of mortality among men ages 15 to 44 in BC. Men are also three times more likely to kill themselves than women. And this is not an isolated incident, it’s a worldwide trend. The male suicide rate increases fairly steadily with age, peaking in the late 40s, falling briefly, then rising again in the 80s. In addition, male rates are greater than female rates at all ages, and substantially greater across most of each’s lifespan.
It’s when you break the numbers down they become truly frightening.
Each week in Canada alone, 50 men take their own life. That’s about seven a day, one every three hours. Right now as you read this, a man in Canada is thinking of killing himself, and will do so shortly. Someone you know, or may have met briefly, is so depressed, he thinks life is no longer worth living. But nobody’s talking about male suicide. In fact, we’ve never really been a society to talk about the death of our men by their own hands.
When we do, it’s glamourized and glorified; a soldier lying down on a grenade to save his platoon, whisking a bomb away to rescue a damsel in distress, a city or even the planet. On their way out, they get their moment in the sun, basking in honour, valiant in death, remembered for eternity as a self-less hero.
What about the oilfield workers losing their jobs right now due to the price crash? Suicide rates for men have spiked as much as 30% in Alberta since the shock took over our national economy. As their debt mounts and job prospects flounder, where’s their Shakespearian denouement?
To say this is not a public health crisis would be to ignore the very fabric woven into modern society: that our men are awash with personal suffering, and most of it takes place in deafening silence. How many of those oil field workers feel as if they exist in a culture where reaching out, seeking counselling or talking about depression is okay? Chances are it’s as close to zero as you can get.
Regardless of your stance on energy policy, right now we need these men (and women) to power our lives, but when it comes to offering them support through a very tough economic time, we have, and continue to abandon them because they’re “rig pigs” who just want to get drunk, snort coke and blow their paycheques.
But do we ever stop to think maybe they’re partially trapped in a culture where the only way to mask mental suffering is by drinking heavily and doing drugs? I’m not saying they’re solely victims of circumstance, but it’s time we realized we all create culture, we all construct our environments.
I’ve worked on those rigs, I know those guys, and a lot of them are incredibly intelligent and thoughtful men who are just scared shitless to share their feelings because they’ll be called a ‘pussy’ or a ‘fag’.
That’s terrible, but we do not fix the culture by ignoring it or casting it with permanent dye. These men need our help to break their own cycle of silence, because they don’t feel comfortable asking for it. Instead they’re putting guns to their heads and pulling the triggers. This is everyone’s problem.
In today’s 24/7 news cycle not much sticks anymore. We’re all sufficiently whipped into a frenzy, we run to our social media handle of choice, vent profusely, then reload for the next argument, the next shaming, the next witch hunt. We’ve each received our own soapbox, and have let narcissism drive our words, pouring our hearts and souls onto the masses with little regard for remorse or consequence.
It’s no wonder we find the news depressing in 2016, it’s a sheet blanket of white noise perpetuated by fear, powered by conflict and driven by mob rule. I myself am just as much to blame as anyone, I read those stories, I click on those links, I make my own bed every night. But nothing shook me like a series of articles I stumbled upon this summer, temporarily breaking my hamster wheel trance of perpetual infotainment.
I came across an article in The Atlantic a few months back. It wasn’t a huge piece, a few paragraphs at best. What it detailed left me awake for most of the night. While everyone is warning of some external foe that might come murder us, we’re all quietly taking our own lives at an ever-growing rate.
We’re statistically forgoing pills and choosing guns, leaving behind cries for help and committing fully to what some call the ultimate shameful act. Suicide rates are not only a crisis, but a growing one in record numbers—men, women, the graphs across the board are going up.
The Atlantic piece outlined a CDC National Centre report that found suicide rates in the U.S. were the highest they’d been in three decades, increasing almost 25% from 1999-2014. Men once again topped the list, with those aged 45-64 the most likely to take their own life.
A few weeks before that, The Atlantic published a precursor piece, longer and more in depth: Why Are So Many Middle-Aged White Americans Dying? The article, with a handful of corresponding graphs, cited another study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, outlining what they called “despair deaths”.
Numbers rose on a bell curve much like skyrocketing consumer debt, housing prices and carbon dioxide emissions. These deaths included drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver diseases. You’re either actively killing yourself, or taking passive-aggressive steps towards it.
Anyone who has the wherewithal to drink, smoke, snort or inject their bodies until their heart stops beating has lost all grip on sanity; logic no more, faith long gone and washed away with the receding tide of reason.
But this festering, growing epidemic of dead men is going unnoticed and unreported. Even though The National Center for Health Statistics called suicide a “national security crisis”, the story barely cracked the international headlines, and was gone from the news cycle within the span of about six days.
Invariably swept under our collective rug, brushed aside into the corner of our culture, we’re more attuned to frivolous threats, vast fields of red herrings and the fear-mongering panderings of election cycle demagogues. We don’t pay much attention to something that kills while simultaneously sending a chilling statement about our current societal makeup: in an age of fear, our priorities are horribly misplaced.
We’d rather call bullshit and ignore this problem. We’d rather continue to let men take their own lives at record levels, refusing to cover them, refusing to acknowledge them as anything but shameful, and refusing to talk about our problems for fear of social repercussions.
Well fuck that.
I’ve had more than a few dark periods in my life. Yes I was depressed, and yes I thought about suicide, and yes it’s tough to write these words without shame creeping into my psyche. I’ve been conditioned to feel guilty, not proud, that at certain times in my life I was surviving more than thriving.
Life can be incredibly fucking hard at times, and I was doing myself no favours by thinking this was something I should suffer through internally. That I should ‘man up’ and grit my teeth. I drank too much–self-medicating–and this was fine, it was an acceptable facet of society. I was a dude, and my life was shit, so I could at least go out, get wasted and mask my problems.
It only made things worse.
But instead of continuing down this path I sought help, I spoke to people and professional counsellors, I talked about my internal, personal issues with those I loved and trusted. I went online and did research, I used the internet to educate myself about why I was such a mess.
Suicide is not a shameful act, and suicide is something we need to be okay talking about, out in the open, because it’s killing us as much as any other chronic disease. This external dialogue I embarked upon helped me get through a very dark period in my life and find a new voice inside my head, one that expresses feelings instead of unhealthily bottling them up. I’m still a man, and in 2016, the fact I’m willing to talk about my problems makes me more so today, not less.
What still continues to give me pause however is my own personal situation. Everyday I’m bombarded with death threats from external forces—terrorists, heart disease, maniacs with guns, the list is endless.
I’m told there’s so many things out there that want to kill me: ISIS jihadists, cholesterol, cancer, sharks, and second-hand smoke. But the chilling statistic is one that still lurks below the surface, one I have to face everyday, regardless of the strides I’ve made over the years towards a better outlook on life and a positive mental health mindset.
That the biggest threat to my life remains myself.
Read More By Patrick Blennerhassett on the ManTalks Blog:
Letting Go of the Physicality of My Youth
Patrick Blennerhassett is a Vancouver-based writer and journalist. His non-fiction novel A Forgotten Legend: Balbir Singh Sr., Triple Olympic Gold & Modi’s New India was featured in such outlets as Maclean’s, the Vancouver Sun and on CBC. His fourth book The Fatalists, will be released this October.
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