How can we pre­vent male sui­cide?

Can tak­ing a spir­i­tual view of sui­cide help us stop men killing them­selves?

Living Now - - Front Page - By Glen Poole

There is a male sui­cide cri­sis in Aus­tralia. It is killing one man every four hours, with each death cre­at­ing a rip­ple ef­fect that im­pacts his friends, fam­ily and wider com­mu­nity.

The Aus­tralian Bureau of Sta­tis­tics de­fines sui­cide as death by “in­ten­tional self harm”. It’s a telling de­scrip­tion, that recog­nises the role the in­ten­tional mind plays in fa­tally self-harm­ing the body through the act of sui­cide, but en­tirely over­looks the role of the spir­i­tual self.

Most at­tempts to ex­plain why men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives, blame men’s sto­ical re­sponse to men­tal health. It’s all in the mind we ar­gue; if men weren’t con­di­tioned to be­lieve that ‘boys don’t cry’, they’d be more like women and open up and get help. Mas­culin­ity doesn’t play a part in the high male sui­cide rate. Pro­fes­sor Jane Purkis at Mel­bourne Univer­sity re­cently com­pleted a study of 14,000 Aus­tralian men which mea­sured 11 char­ac­ter­is­tics of mas­culin­ity and found that one of these traits, self-reliance, is a key pre­dic­tor of sui­ci­dal think­ing. Yet the other mas­cu­line traits, were not.

Re­search into the Queens­land Sui­cide Reg­is­ter also found that while nearly two-thirds of women who die by sui­cide have at least one psy­chi­atric dis­or­der, the ma­jor­ity of men who take their own lives, don’t have a psy­chi­atric dis­or­der.

So what if the un­ac­cept­ably high male sui­cide rate isn’t just a men­tal health cri­sis, or in­deed a cri­sis of mas­culin­ity, but a cri­sis of the mas­cu­line spir­i­tual self?

It has long been es­tab­lished that re­li­gious be­liefs that dis­cour­age sui­cide can re­duce the risk of the faith­ful from tak­ing their own lives. From a non­re­li­gious per­spec­tive, how­ever, the suc­cess of cam­paigns to des­tig­ma­tise men­tal ill­ness, is thought, by some, to be mak­ing sui­cide an eas­ier choice. Ac­cord­ing to the chair of Life­line, John Brog­den, “We have for­got­ten to tell peo­ple that sui­cide is the wrong choice… not a shame­ful de­ci­sion, not a self­ish de­ci­sion, but the wrong de­ci­sion.”

In an in­creas­ingly post-chris­tian world, should we be teach­ing our chil­dren a new kind of moral­ity, that tells them sui­cide is the wrong so­lu­tion? Those who take a more spir­i­tual, non-du­al­is­tic view of sui­cide, think not. In his book, Think­ing About Sui­cide, David Webb ar­gues that la­belling sui­cide as the wrong so­lu­tion doesn’t work.

“Sui­cide is a so­lu­tion”, he says. “If you kill your­self the pain will stop. Guar­an­teed! I’m not in any­way ad­vo­cat­ing sui­cide, but any­one who is se­ri­ously con­tem­plat­ing sui­cide al­ready knows that ad­vice is a lie. We need to teach our kids there are bet­ter so­lu­tions.”

With­out a spir­i­tual com­pass, it can be dif­fi­cult to make sense of male sui­cide. We live in a sec­u­lar age, where we tend to view mas­culin­ity and fem­i­nin­ity as hu­man in­ven­tions, rather than uni­ver­sal truths – there is no Yin and Yang; no Shiva and Shakti; no sa­cred fem­i­nine and mas­cu­line force. Our ex­pe­ri­ences of gen­der, we tell our­selves, are the re­sult of nur­ture not na­ture. Yet even if we re­ject any pos­si­bil­ity that the hands of Mother Na­ture or Fa­ther God are shap­ing our hu­man­ity, it is im­pos­si­ble to deny there are clear dif­fer­ences in the

“We have for­got­ten to tell peo­ple that sui­cide is the wrong choice… not a shame­ful de­ci­sion, not a self­ish de­ci­sion, but the wrong de­ci­sion.”

ways that men and women ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­press them­selves in the world.

Sim­ply ac­cept­ing, whether we like to not, that there is some uni­ver­sal truth in the view that mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine char­ac­ter­is­tics man­i­fest in the world in dif­fer­ent ways, can help us stop male sui­cide.

Take the gen­der cliché that when women want to talk about prob­lems, men try to fix them and of­fer so­lu­tions. While this won’t be true for all of us, it does re­flect ar­che­typal pat­terns of the fem­i­nine, cre­at­ing from the in­side out, and the mas­cu­line, gen­er­at­ing from the out­side in.

Cur­rently, sui­cide pre­ven­tion ser­vices tend to take a fem­i­nine, em­pathic, feel­ings-led ap­proach, which works from the in­side out, by iden­ti­fy­ing peo­ple who feel sui­ci­dal and help­ing them talk about their emo­tions. While this works for some men, a more mas­cu­line, sys­temic, things-led ap­proach to sui­cide pre­ven­tion, starts from the out­side in, by help­ing to fix the prob­lems that are known to in­crease men’s risk of sui­cide.

We know, for ex­am­ple, that ex­ter­nal pres­sures, such as re­la­tion­ship prob­lems, fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties, work strain and un­em­ploy­ment, can put men on the path to sui­cide. We also know that when men are given prac­ti­cal help to fix these prob­lems, their risk of sui­cide re­duces.

If we want to stop male sui­cide, then, it is both prac­ti­cal and spir­i­tual to take a gen­dered ap­proach to sui­cide pre­ven­tion that hon­ours and works with an­cient mas­cu­line truths.

If men are more in­clined to ‘ fix things’ from the out­side in, than to ‘ talk about things’ from the in­side out, then one way to view male sui­cide is as a so­lu­tion-based be­hav­iour. The path­way to sui­cide takes men from hav­ing prob­lems, to try­ing to fix prob­lems, to try­ing to cope with prob­lems, to see­ing sui­cide as a so­lu­tion to their prob­lems.

We need to ac­knowl­edge that men and boys face a range of so­cial is­sues that in­crease their risk of sui­cide, and to get bet­ter at help­ing them to fix or cope with these prob­lems from the out­side in, rather than wait­ing for them to share how they feel about these prob­lems, from the in­side out. While this func­tional, prag­matic and spir­i­tu­ally aware way to work with men at risk of sui­cide can and does make a dif­fer­ence, it may barely scratch the sur­face. Ac­cord­ing to David Webb, sui­cide is best un­der­stood as a “sa­cred cri­sis of the self”, a cri­sis that can be healthy and “full of op­por­tu­nity, de­spite its risks”.

At a mun­dane level, it re­mains es­sen­tial that we con­tinue to find ways to help sui­ci­dal men and women, whether that’s by talk­ing through prob­lems from the in­side, or fix­ing prob­lems form the out­side. Spir­i­tu­ally speak­ing, says Webb, the male sui­cide cri­sis may present an op­por­tu­nity to open new av­enues of en­quiry, with the po­ten­tial to give men a deeper ex­pe­ri­ence of their ‘self’ and a path­way out of sui­cide.

If this is true, maybe we should stop say­ing to the men in our lives “tell me about your feel­ings” and start say­ing to men and boys ev­ery­where, “tell me about your self”. n

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