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Man Down: Is feminism the answer to male suicide?

We are in the middle of a male suicide epidemic. That may sound sensationalist but it’s true. In 2014, male suicide in the UK reached a 15-year high, with over three quarters of all instances of suicide being men. This trend is universal too. In 2012 the World Health Organisation collected suicide data from 174 countries. Out of those 174 countries, men took their lives at a higher rate than women in all but five: Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Iraq and Pakistan.

Globally, men are four times more likely to take their own life than women.

Given that mental illness is associated with the vast majority of suicide cases it should logically follow that men are simply more likely to suffer from mental health disorders than women, but this is not the case. In what is known as the gender paradox, psychologists have found that in western countries, despite their lower rate of suicide, females are 20-40% more likely to suffer from a mental illness than their male counterparts. They are also more likely to experience suicidal thinking than men and are even more likely to attempt suicide.

So why does having a penis make you so much more likely to kill yourself? This is a question social scientists have been asking for some time, although not in that exact wording.

There are various theories, but it is generally believed that it comes down to different emotional and behavioural patterns between the sexes. Men are more likely to feel pressure to appear strong and in control, less likely to confide in friends and family about personal problems and – crucially – less likely to seek help when they are struggling with their mental health.

But is this behaviour innate or is it learned? Were our male Neanderthal predecessors throwing rocks at each other to avoid grunting about their feelings or were they sitting cross-legged in a trust circle talking about their childhood? Is there something inherent about male physiology that makes us reluctant to seek help or share our problems?

The answer is a pretty resounding ‘no’. It is widely believed that any difference between the sexes in how they experience or express emotion stems not from biology but from socialised gender roles; men are not born with what social psychologists refer to as restrictive emotionality, we learn it.

Of course we aren’t shown a powerpoint presentation on prescriptive masculinity while we wait for the nurse to cut our umbilical cord, rather this is something we learn over time, something that is hammered into us throughout our lives. We are told what a man should and should not be from childhood in subtle and seemingly trivial ways, like being given an Action Man instead of a Barbie, or more overtly every time we are told to “be a man”, “grow a pair” or “man up” when we transgress by expressing emotions society tells us we’re not supposed to have (aggression, anger and pride – manly and good; anxiety, fear and vulnerability – unmanly and bad).

If what is widely believed to cause the high rate of male suicide – the difficulty men have in expressing their emotion and asking for help – is learned behaviour, then presumably it can be un-learned. This is an idea that seems to be gaining traction.

It seems that nowadays men are increasingly aware that our inability to talk about what ails us is a problem and, largely thanks to the campaigning of fantastic organisations like CALM, that it can kill us. This has led to important discussions about how to curb this problem.

However, the conclusion to these discussions, and indeed any discussions on the male suicide problem, are always the same: Men just need to learn to talk about their feelings. In theory this is great, but in practice it’s not that simple. When men have been socialised to hide their vulnerability and pretend everything is fine, suggesting they just need to open up about their feelings is a bit like telling the pilot of a crashing plane to slow down – a noble sentiment and surely a useful tip, but a little bit late in the game.

There is another issue with blaming the high rate of male suicide on the inability of men to talk about their feelings, which is that it puts the onus entirely on the men themselves while completely ignoring the bigger picture of how our society’s idea of masculinity – and gender roles altogether – breeds these men and punishes those that do not fit into this model.

Rather than trying to un-learn this limiting and, as we have seen, potentially fatal ideology about what it means to be a man, surely it is better not to teach it in the first place. To do this would require a seismic shift in the way we as a society think about gender roles, which may sound like an idealistic or unachievable idea, but there is a movement that is already working on it and has made great strides – feminism.

Now I realise this may catch some of you off-guard and may sound a bit counter-intuitive when talking about what seems to be a male problem, so allow me to explain.

Feminism, contrary to what some angry level-38 warlocks on the internet may say, is not about hating men. Nor is it exclusively about vaginas, body hair or the TV show ‘Girls’. Unfortunately, the internet loves stories about the small pool of fools who behave badly in the name of feminism than about the positive work of the movement proper. As such the term itself has become somewhat detached from its original meaning and become a difficult word for many to swallow.

It’s a term that men in particular seem to be wary of using, as its use is often met with hostility from other men. The instinct – and it’s one I ashamedly admit I have to fight myself – is to assume that when a man makes a point of calling himself a feminist, either he is doing so in a desperate and manipulative attempt to ingratiate himself to a woman or he’s a bit of a Softy Walter. Writing this article I have spent a lot of time wondering why so many men, myself included, have this almost Pavlovian response to self-proclaimed male feminists and I still don’t have a satisfactory answer. Intellectually I know this response is laughable, as I’m sure do many other men, but for some reason the ‘man’ in me tells me such a person is not to be trusted, they are not one of us – after all, sensitivity is not a masculine trait. I’m by no means proud of this, and my better judgement tells me not to mention it, but I bring it up to highlight the damaging effect of prescriptive gender roles, which put us into separate camps and pit us against one another. If a man does not tow the party line, he is not a real man and is to be looked upon with suspicion; this is what we’re taught.

Feminism, of course, should not be a dirty word. At its core, the feminist movement is about seeking to change limiting gender roles and challenge sexist ideas with a view towards creating a society in which people’s gender does not hold them back. Women have been and continue to be subject to more systematic oppression than men – think sexual harassment, the wage gap, policing of women’s bodies and so on – hence why it is called the feminist movement and why women’s rights are its primary focus, but ultimately traditional gender roles harm everybody.

In writing this I am not trying to co-opt a women’s movement and make it all about men, nor am I trying to suggest that the movement needs men’s help to be effective. My intention is merely to point out that by taking apart and challenging traditional notions of gender we all benefit. Feminism can liberate us all.

When suicide seemed like my only option, I felt desperate and alone; I was an island. What I needed to do was to talk, to ask for help, but I felt unable to do so. I could see where I needed to get to and I had the tools to get me there, but something held me back. Of course I can’t say for certain what that something was, but when I look back on it now it seems clear to me that my own gut feelings about my masculinity – or lack thereof – were a huge factor. Intellectually I believed, as I still do, that our ideas about gender are to a large extent arbitrary and that talking about your feelings makes you no less of a man, but what we believe intellectually is not always congruent with what we feel emotionally, and I felt that telling people I was struggling would castrate me.

I’m not saying that talking about your mental health is easy if you’re not a man, but I do believe that our ideas about masculinity and the way we socialise young boys to behave makes it incredibly difficult for men in particular. However, if we can teach boys from a young age, as we do their female counterparts, that it is okay for them to have difficult feelings, it is okay for them to share these feelings and it is okay for them to admit they have a problem and seek help, I believe we can radically reduce the male suicide rate.

In order to do this we need to take apart our idea of what it means to be a man and build a new model, a model that allows for men to draw outside the lines and express themselves in what have historically been considered feminine ways, like exhibiting vulnerability, seeking emotional support when in need and drinking Diet Coke. This just so happens to be exactly what the feminist movement is seeking to do – deconstruct our ideas about gender in order to build less limiting models for everyone. If we join the feminist movement and reassess how we think about gender not only will we create a more fair and equal society for all, I believe we may well save lives in the process.

So perhaps it’s about time we all man up and embrace feminism.

(image courtesy of Garry Knight)

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