Breaking the Silence: Hidden Struggles of Male Mental Health and Suicide

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Annually, suicide claims the lives of over 800,000 individuals worldwide. Suicide disparities between men and women are well-documented, with males consistently demonstrating greater rates. When it comes to discussing feelings, men and women have different expectations. Women are considered emotionally ‘sensitive,’ and it is socially acceptable for them to reveal their sentiments, but women, who are viewed as strong and fearless are discouraged from expressing their emotions outwardly. 

These cultural norms and gender stereotypes have been circulating for generations and become toxic for men. From a young age, men are conditioned to believe that expressing their emotions is out of character of the male identity. Moreover, it is ingrained in them from a tender age that crying is a sign of weakness. Research shows that men experience sadness as much as women but are likely to channel those feelings into different emotions that are seen as more socially acceptable. Emotions that are associated with dominance and strength are viewed as more masculine even if the underlying emotion fueling the behavior is different.

Part of what makes us human is the ability to feel and process our emotions Failure to do this could cause consequences such as depression and anxiety thus increasing the risk of suicide. Men are more likely to commit suicide than women. In 2018 men died by suicide 3.56 times more often than women did. Data from the World Bank puts suicide mortality rates in Kenya at 6.1 people in every 100,000 with men being in the highest risk category that being 9.1 ratio of men to women in every 100,000. 

Are men okay? What is going on? These are existential questions we need to ask ourselves, What can we do to help men understand that it is okay not to be okay? That it doesn’t make you any less of a man. But first, we need to understand the reasons why men are the way they are or why they act the way they do. Psychologists over the years have found ways to describe it.

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Covert Male Depression

To help us best understand this phenomenon is the Terrence Real seminal book, I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. Twenty years of experience in treating men and their families led him to conceive a bestselling book in which he explains that depression is a silent epidemic in men. Men hide their condition from family, friends and themselves to avoid the stigma of depression and unmanliness.  He also states that the problems we think of as typically male, difficulty in intimacy, workaholism, alcoholism, abusive behavior and rage are attempts to escape depression.  

They covertly experience depression which manifests mostly as numbness, boredom, apathy, limited emotional range and cynicism.

Male Alexithymia

Accompanying covert male depression is another crucial phenomenon called male alexithymia. It is defined perfectly by the American Psychological Association as a subclinical form of alexithymia found in boys and men raised to conform to traditional masculine norms that emphasize toughness, teamwork, stoicism, and competition and that discourage the expression of vulnerable emotions.

The fact that the inability to feel or describe emotions is considered normative, does not mean that it’s natural or good. When a man suffers from both covert male depression and male alexithymia, he is surviving not living.

Suicide is a global problem that is underreported and needs to be addressed.

Why Do More Men Die of Suicide?

Generalizing across all cases of suicide is not always helpful, but many possibilities might explain why men are struggling.

Roles in Society

For generations, societal roles have pressured men to man up. They’re encouraged to be tough, and any admittance that you’re not okay is one of weakness. While women are often wrongly characterized as emotional, men are not encouraged to speak up at all. It has its roots in childhood when we’re told that boys don’t cry.

Communication

Women tend to be more communicative around mental health, able to discuss their feelings with others rather than resorting to internalizing their emotions.” As many as 40% of men have never spoken to anyone about their mental health, despite over three-quarters suffering from common symptoms like anxiety, stress or depression.” When asked why they don’t speak up, the biggest reasons cited were:

  • ‘I’ve learnt to deal with it (40%) 
  • ‘I don’t wish to be a burden to anyone (36%)
  • ‘I’m too embarrassed (29%)
  • ‘There’s a negative stigma around this type of thing’ (20%)

The same survey found that, for four in ten men, it would take thoughts of suicide to compel them to ask for support for their mental health. 

Given men are less likely to speak up in a medical setting, it makes them less likely to get the treatment they need when they are struggling. Men are less willing to report symptoms of depression – which some see as one explanation for why women are more regularly diagnosed with mental health conditions.

Alcohol and depression are inextricably linked. People will often drink excessively to self-medicate when they’re suffering from symptoms of depression or anxiety. Despite feeling more relaxed in the short term, alcohol is a depressant that, over time, will make symptoms worse. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 7% of men have an alcohol use disorder, compared to 4% of women. 

Financial Pressures

When pressures in your life are especially intense, many of the reasons above play a role that makes men more vulnerable to suicide. A survey that was done by the Priory Group stated that work pressures (32%) and financial pressures (31%) as the two biggest issues negatively affecting men’s mental health.

Again, gender roles may be relevant. Men tend to view themselves as a failure if they are not able to provide for their families. During financial downturns, the BBC reports that rates of suicide increase, making men more at risk if they lose their jobs during a recession.

When workplace stigmas, an unwillingness to speak up, and the risk of substance abuse combine with a drastic change in someone’s life, the risk of suicide can increase dramatically. 

Unfortunately, suicide prevention measures in Kenya have often failed to address these root causes and instead implemented fewer effective approaches including punitive measures. Almost 500 people are reported to have killed themselves in the three months to June this year, more than the whole of 2020, according to the Kenyan police.

The youngest person to take their life was nine years old; the oldest was 76. The 483 deaths recorded during the period were a marked increase on the annual average of about 320 cases, the Ministry of Health reported.

George Kinoti, who previously headed the police directorate of criminal investigations, said: “We have never recorded such a high number of suicides before, and this is not only alarming but calls for urgent remedial measures. Last year the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) said 1,442 Kenyans attempted suicide between 2015 and 2018, which it said were conservative figures as only a fraction of cases were reported. The organization linked the rise in cases to mental ill-health caused by a breakdown in socio-economic safeguards, saying it was the “last resort and path of escape for individuals with unaddressed mental health needs”.

“Research has shown that structural determinants of mental ill-health such as extreme poverty, lack of access to empowerment opportunities and discrimination increase the likelihood of individuals committing suicide,” the KNHCR said. The KNCHR also reported that efforts to address the root cause hampered the criminalization of attempted suicide. Section 226 of The Penal Code states that any person who attempts to kill himself is guilty of a misdemeanor, which the Human Rights body likened to the re-victimization of already vulnerable victims.

Globally, 703,000 people take their own life every year. WHO stated that suicide was the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds in 2019. Poor data, and lack of awareness of suicide as a major public health issue, and the taboo in many societies around openly discussing suicide do not help to fight the problem.

There are various organizations in Kenya that work towards preventing suicide and offer support to people at risk of the same. Befrienders Kenya, is a charitable initiative that offers suicide prevention support, it achieves this by offering free physiological support to people in distress and thus at risk of dying by suicide.

Here are ways we can help decrease suicide rates as a nation,

  • Normalize the suicide conversation, and break the stigma.
  • Create awareness of mental health and substance abuse.
  • Emphasize the need to reach out to someone when need be.
  • Prioritize self-care.
  • Practice mindfulness to help you become more self-aware.
  • Take any suicidal thoughts and threats seriously.
  • Check for warning signs.
  • Change how the media portrays suicide.
  • Encourage interaction and good communication within the family setting.
  • Improve mental health treatment for people.

We need to recognize the alarming rate at which we are losing people to suicide. Your life is important. Don’t give up just yet.

 

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