How can we prevent male suicide?
Can taking a spiritual view of suicide help us stop men killing themselves?
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