By Mike Snelle
Around thirteen men in the UK will kill themselves today, and the male suicide rate is at a 14-year high. Is it time to accept that society has become dangerously hostile to men, asks Mike Snelle
“‘It’s all in your head’ has the same appeal as ‘It’s all in the genes’”, wrote Louis Menand in the New Yorker a few years ago. “An explanation for the way things are that does not threaten the way things are. Why should someone feel unhappy or engage in anti-social behaviour when that person is living in the freest and most prosperous nation on earth? It can’t be the system! There must be a flaw in the wiring somewhere.”
I’ve had cause to question my own wiring. Two years ago, I hit crisis point. I stopped answering my phone. I wasn’t eating. I became suicidal. I was diagnosed as Bipolar and prescribed a mixture of mood stabilisers and anti-psychotic medication. Reading around the subject, I realised I wasn’t alone. Last week it became clear that more and more men were struggling just as much.
The suicide rate amongst men is at its highest since 2001, and is over three times that of women. The use of anti-depressants has increased fivefold since 1991. Today, around 13 men in the UK will kill themselves (4,858 men killed themselves in 2013, according to the latest figures). Why are men in our society reaching crisis point? What’s going on?
When I was diagnosed, I was told Bipolar is a genetic illness with a biological cause. I harboured the common misconception that ‘genetic’ means inevitable and unchangeable, but after some research I realised that’s not really what ‘genetic’ means.
To say something is genetic in this context is to say that there is a genetic contribution to the way a person responds to their environment. At most it suggests a predisposition to certain behaviours. There is no inevitability about it. There are no behaviours regardless of environment, only behaviours given a particular environment. All this got me thinking.
Our culture treats people with depression is as if there is something wrong with them; a biological imbalance best treated with medication. But if it’s impossible to understand biology outside the context of environment, and there is a frightening increase in male suicide and depression, perhaps we need to take a closer look at the other variable – our environment. An increase in mental health problems, and in particular suicide rates amongst men, suggests that the environment we live in has become more hostile to men.
If depression is the mind’s way of telling us there is something wrong in our environment, then the broader increase in male suicides is telling us that there is something wrong in our society.
I believe that as social animals all human beings are wired for collaboration, connection, empathy and generosity. It’s natural for a child to feel distressed by the suffering of another person. I see it in my own seven-year-old, who cannot understand how we can allow another child to starve, or someone to be homeless when the Queen has so many spare rooms.
But we live in a society that is increasingly at odds with this basic empathy. One percent of the world’s population owns almost half of the world’s wealth. We are more concerned with house prices than homelessness. Many of us have doubts about the ability of our political parties to represent our interests. The current social, economic and political climate is creating an environment in which people feel alienated and stressed.
Alongside all this, men are taught that the highest indicator of success is economic – our financial worth is synonymous with our value as people. The constant bombardment of advertising reinforces the notion that to buy more is to be more. We are trained to be in competition with one another, and rewarded for ruthlessness. Empathy and emotional understanding are regarded as weaknesses. If you believe that men are basically decent and wired towards compassion and connection, then the current environment puts us in conflict with our nature as human beings.
None of this is new, of course. But it’s coincided with a kind of collective awakening amongst men. We no longer believe in the supremacy of traditional male values. More than that, we’re beginning to understand that greed, competition and the desire for power are at the root of many of the problems in society.
We want instead to be better fathers and partners, emotionally available and physically present. We want fulfilling friendships with our peers, and creative outlets for our minds. To be politically active and socially aware.
We are torn between two sets of opposing values, destined to fail whichever route we choose. Often we attempt both, fail at each, and end up feeling worthless.
We live in an age of unparalleled inequality, deep systematic irrationality, and frightening hypocrisy. Men are being pulled in opposing directions, and for 13 of us a day, it’s too much, and we break.
There is much work to be done in the area of men’s mental health. We need to reduce the stigma attached to depression, increase the availability of support, and encourage an environment in which we feel comfortable approaching those of our peers who might be struggling.
But let’s not pretend all men with depression are suffering a biological deficiency. Let’s not prescribe anti-depressants to an ever increasing percentage of the population and congratulate ourselves that we’ve somehow solved the problem. The fact is that men are killing themselves at an alarming rate, and if that isn’t an indicator that we need to ask some serious questions about our society, nothing is.
Source: The Telegraph