On October 30, the Canadian Association for Equality and the University of Toronto Men’s Issues Awareness Society hosted the second event in their two-part series on men’s mental health, “Suicide and Men: Why depressed men are dying for someone to talk to,” with speakers Aara Amey-Ayer and Julian Bachlow, mental health educators at the Canadian Mental Health Association. Happily, this event went off without disruption.
With media reports of a number of high-profile people succumbing to depression and eventual suicide, this talk was indeed timely. Bachlow bravely told of his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts, providing attendees an insight into this terrible affliction, while Amey-Ayer delivered an informative talk about depression and the state of mental health in Ontario, both generally and for men and boys specifically.
Suicide is tough to talk about, and this was at times quite an uncomfortable event. However, despite its taboo, suicide must be addressed. For many people, recognizing when someone is in distress can be challenging, and knowing how best to deal with it is even tougher, so the insights from these two speakers I’ve summarized below were invaluable.
Recognize the Signs
There are many signs that someone may be having thoughts of suicide. Lack of communication with friends, family, or colleagues or isolating oneself completely is common, as are expressions of loneliness or confusion.
Problems at school or work and not eating or skipping meals can also be signals, as can giving away personal items or costly belongings.
Suicide is not, as many people believe, a selfish act. Those contemplating ending their own life often feel as though they are a burden to family and friends. Completed suicide is not generally attempted regardless of the effect it would have on loved ones; rather, it is viewed as unburdening them.
Risk factors are varied: negative family experiences and early trauma as well as experiences in teenaged years often factor in. Although altered brain chemicals from either medical issues such as the onset of schizophrenia or side effects of medication may be a cause, often the reasons are more common, such as excessive stress, major life events such as divorce or loss, or frequent moves and uncertainty regarding the future.
Being able to recognize signs and risk factors can give you the opportunity to be there for that person.
It is often important for someone suffering severe depression to know that they are not alone in their struggles. Let them know that you are there for them. Try to remind them that this is a temporary setback, that the way they feel right now will change. Understand that they will not believe that their feelings will change, but try to assure them that this is the case.
Remind them that you care about what happens to them, and although you may not understand exactly what they are going through, you will be there to see them through this.
A depressed person will tend to dwell on negative thoughts, so it is important to get them to recognize and avoid this. Over-analyzing difficulties can be avoided by “mindfulness,” being aware of the present surroundings. Encourage them to observe the world around them with fresh eyes, as a child seeing things for the first time. Another exercise for avoiding “sticky thoughts” is to consciously consider why these thought are sticking; is it helpful?
Above all, encourage them to reach out, and remind them that there is nothing wrong with being a self-advocate.
Men and Depression
Women tend to ask for help with depression in their teens, two-thirds earlier than when men seek help. As a result, troubles are often much more developed before a man seeks help. Unlike women, men tend to seek help after they are in crisis, after they have been arrested or post-divorce, for example. Men will often also express a preference to see male counsellors, which is another impediment: male counsellors are the exception in Canada (and other parts of the world).
While women tend to internalize their pain—eating disorders, for example—men are more likely to externalize. Anger, violence, and self-harm are more frequent. As a result, it is not always the best course of action to notify police when you are concerned. Although most police departments have some officers with mental health training, there is a potential for undesirable results. The incident will be recorded and can cause future issues with crossing international borders or issuing of visas. It is never a good idea to leave a severely depressed person alone; however, friends and family are a better option if the individual refuses to go to a hospital.
There have been many incidents of depressed men being charged with crimes as well. One incident described at the talk was of a man who had cut himself with a knife but then rethought his choice to try to end his life. When he ran into the street to seek help, police were called, and seeing that he still had the knife in his hand, he was charged with possession of a weapon. It is mostly men who are charged in such circumstances.
There are five priority groups with the Canadian Mental Health Association. LGBT, being particularly at risk, are at the top of that list. Although men tend to think and act on suicide more often, sadly, men are not a priority group.
Today, 43% of boys express unhappiness with their appearance and the number of boys with eating disorders is on the rise. There are high levels of PTSD among men. In the United States, two-thirds of the homeless are war veterans. There is also a high level of stigma among men regarding risk factors; men are rarely viewed as victims of violence but rather only perpetrators, for example. And although there is no data on uncompleted suicide, it is known that men and boys make up four times as many completed suicides as women and girls, and suicide is now the second leading cause of death in young men.
Not only are men not considered a priority, but there is also a serious lack of psychiatric services, leaving general practitioners to take up the shortfall. This is far from ideal, as GPs have a widely varying degree of experience and training in mental health.
Mental health services, especially for men, are severely lacking in Ontario—indeed, throughout Canada, the United States, and worldwide—and this is an issue that must be addressed. But until that situation is rectified, it is up to us to do whatever we can to help those around us who are suffering and in need.