In this blog I will only ask questions. I may have some thoughts about ways forward, but I do not pretend to have answers.
Can you guess what has recently become the leading cause of death among men under the age of 50? Is it heart attacks? Accidents? Cancer?
It is none of those. The leading cause of death under the age of 50 among men is suicide.
In the mainstream community, across all groups of people, the people most at risk of suicide are white men over the age of 65. They are eight times more likely to die by suicide than women in that age bracket.
I grimace when I wonder about this, and I refuse to ask it without great caution: has it come to this, that a new risk factor for suicide is simply being male? I raise it as a question; the statistics, however, suggest that the question is already answered.
What is going on here? And why do we hear almost nothing about it? If this were a “classic” public health epidemic, wouldn’t we be hearing about it on the front pages of our newspapers, of Time magazine? Wouldn’t we be marshalling all kinds of resources, both public and private, to slow down and eventually stop the epidemic? Why is that not happening?
Of course, we could speculate about all kinds of possible causes. The #MeToo movement—long, long overdue—has begun to shine the light on male sexual abuse and power violations against women. There is so much to celebrate there, especially the extraordinary courage of many women coming forward. But an effect too can be to increase the level of shame that many men, most of whom are non-abusers, experience simply because they are men.
What is it to be a man today? There can be many different types of legitimate answers to that question, just as there are many different types of men. But I believe that in most cases today most men do not have a clue how to answer that question, or even how to begin to try to find an answer. Is that one of the factors contributing to this awful pattern? Is another factor that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other workplace forces are increasingly rendering typical men’s roles “redundant”?
And how might these realities factor into failed relationships? Douglas Todd, in an article in the Vancouver Sun entitled Men and Suicide: The Silent Epidemic quotes Professor John Oliffe, a University of British Columbia psychology researcher: “Divorce is a classic factor in suicide. These men become socially isolated. There are so many examples of good men’s lives ending prematurely.” And: “North American men going through divorce are eight times more likely than divorcing women to commit suicide, reports Augustine Kposowa, of the University of California, Riverside.”
How can men help each other with this? How can society begin to answer this question: what are legitimate, hopeful places and roles that men can occupy in today’s world, roles that are life-affirming, life-giving and soul-nourishing not just for men but for the women and children around them? And how can we begin to actually listen to men in their pain and vulnerability?
As I say, I do not have answers to these questions. I would love to hear from people who might suggest answers.
To explore these themes some more, a good place to start is a Passionate Eye special that aired on CBC Television this past January, called “Dying For Help.”
Together, can we shine some light on this new, silent, lethal epidemic unfolding right around us?
And if you are worried about the risk of suicide for yourself or a loved one, please know that help is available at 1-833-456-4566 or online at http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W. is Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.