An individual ending their life prematurely by suicide is one of the most devastating things that can ever happen. All of that future potential is lost for the person who takes that action. The potential to turn their life around, to take a new path, to contribute. to experience, to enjoy, to live, to laugh and to love and be loved.
The impact of one death by suicide is devastating as well for those surrounding anybody who takes this most tragic of actions, the Centre for Suicide Prevention website highlights that on average, up to 135 people are affected by some degree by every person lost to suicide.
The Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide website highlights how the loss of a valuable and loved individual by suicide ‘ripples out’ to impact on partners, family, friends and the wider community in a profound way.
Not only are people left without that beautiful and worthwhile person in their lives, they can often also be left with unanswered questions such as “why did I not see it?”, “was there something I could have done?” and “why did they not reach out to me?”.
Nobody (including the individual who takes the action) is to blame when someone ends their life by suicide. It is often a most tragic outworking of a complex set of life circumstances, combined with a lack of belief, support and a clearly pathway into a positive way forward to alleviate suffering and distress.
Guilt and anger, although understandable emotions, are not always helpful and productive, love and compassion are what is needed. Including for yourself if you are feeling close to taking that action.
However, suicide is an avoidable form of death and nobody should have to be left behind to try to find a way to adjust and carry on when bereaved by suicide.
Some Statistics About Suicide
According to the Office of National Statistics website in 2018 there were 6,507 deaths by suicide registered in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland) and around three-quarters of those deaths (4,903) were in men.
According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency website in 2018 there were 307 deaths by suicide registered in Northern Ireland and around three-quarters of those deaths (228) were in men.
According to the Central Statistics Office website in 2018 there were 437 deaths by suicide registered in Ireland and around three-quarters of those deaths (327) were in men.
This equates to a heart breaking 5,458 men having their lives prematurely cut short by suicide in the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland during that year. If we then cross-reference this to the Centre for Suicide’s estimation of 135 people affected by each death of this type, this gives a shocking figure of 736, 830 people affected by suicide in that year alone.
The Samaritans “Suicide Statistics Report (December 2019)” notes that:
- In the UK the highest rates of suicide were in men aged 45-49 years.
- In Northern Ireland the highest rates of suicide were in men aged 25-29 years.
- In Ireland the highest rates of suicide were in men aged 55-64 years.
Why Might Men Be More at Risk?
Every death by suicide, is a tragedy of equal merit whether the person is male or female, however these statistics do show that men are significantly more at risk of taking this most drastic and irreversible of actions. Why might that be?
Well logically we are all (male or female) are human beings and equally as capable or hurt, pain, distress and trauma. So why do more males resort to this action than females when struggling with complex life situations that are taking a profound psychological toll?
A theory proposed from a male-affirmative perspective is that it is not that men are necessarily more prone to psychological distress than women, or indeed nor that they have lower levels of coping and resilience skills to tolerate distress. Rather our outdated societal construct of masculinity still hinders men when life presents them with complex challenges both in terms of opening up about the distress they are internally battling with (“boys don’t cry”, “stiff upper lip”, “man up” etc) and inhibits them from reaching out for help (“go it alone”, “sort it out yourself” etc).
Also there might be a disadvantage in terms of outdated societal constructs around developing emotional insight, intelligence and an emotional vocabulary. Are our boys and men encouraged and supported to connect with, develop an understanding of and articulate the ‘feeling’ part of themselves?
Emotional articulation (taking about how you are feeling inside) is a skill, and like all skills it needs to be practiced to develop competence. If a man has not been supported to develop the skill of talking about his feelings throughout his whole life, surely it cannot be surprising that he may not be able to find the words or have the confidence to articulate them when he is in suicidal distress?
When you look at those men most at risk of taking this avoidable action (in general ages 45-65), we see that those in older age groups who would have been growing from boyhood into being young men in 1960s, 1970s and 1980s UK/Ireland. Perhaps not the most ‘enlightened’ times for psychological health awareness for everyone, and what would have been the masculine narratives about ‘acceptable’ and ‘socially appropriate’ male conduct these men would have grown up influenced by as they tried to work out the type of man they ‘should be’ to fit in.
Could the most at risk groupings be in any way connected to lifespan theories? Erickson’s developmental lifespan theory identifies certain societal milestones we are socially expected to achieve during certain stages of our lives. He notes that people in early adulthood (20s-40s) strive to develop a strong sense of self through forming intimate relationships with others. Whereas in in middle adulthood (40s-60s) the drive is more to feel a sense of generativity (finding a life purpose and contributing to the development of others).
What happens if someone in their early adulthood does not find, or experiences the loss of significant intimate connections, of if they reach middle adulthood without having discovered (or have lost) a sense of life purpose? Could there be a connection here with increased risk of suicide? If we have not achieved those milestones do we become concerned that society will judge us a ‘failure’?
One thing is for sure, as males move through their lives they will all encounter a number of life landmark experiences. Significant and psychologically profound life experiences that often cannot be avoided and which if not processed in a constructive way, can leave men psychologically vulnerable.
This can include life experiences such as the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, a bereavement, a divorce, a serious illness and so on. All of which can contribute to the psychological pressure they have to contend with, and often the older they get, the more of these life landmark experiences they are having to carry around with them. Could that be why vulnerability to suicide in general increases with age?
Understanding Suicidal Thoughts vs Intent
The human brain is a wonderful complex and highly agile organ and the Daily Mail website reports the average person can have up to 6,200 thoughts per day (that is an average of about 4 thoughts per minute).
Thoughts are just that, thoughts, they are in themselves not anything to be frightened of and are not always insights into who we really are or what someone will actually do.
How many people do you reckon have had an occasional thought about killing someone or committing some other serious crime slip into their head (a lot of us if not everyone). Yet as a society we are not overrun with murderers and serious criminals, just because we have a thought does not mean we are ever going to act on it.
So having an occasional thought enter our head that we “would be better of dead” or that “the world would be a better place without us” etc is not in itself something to be terrified of, or a prediction that we are going to happen, but it can be a warning signal being sent from our brain that something is starting to go seriously wrong and needs attended to.
Human beings are fundamentally hard-wired for survival and the brain is the organ in the body that acts in a continuously solution-focused way to find a way out of problems we are facing.
If someone is in extreme distress or despair, in many ways it is not surprising that their brain entertains the thought “I could kill myself” as a means to end that distress, it is the brain exploring potential solutions to a problem based on the known options it has available to consider.
The Samaritans website makes a very profound statement about individuals who are contemplating suicide it says: “The majority of people who feel suicidal do not actually want to die, they do not want to live the life they have.”
Thoughts of suicide are a bit like an internal fire alarm going off inside your brain, sending you the message that life cannot continue indefinitely as is (and it does not have to). Treat them like that and if the thoughts get more frequent and intense see that as your survival instinct sending you a signal to act now.
If your brain is ‘sticking’ on the thought of suicide as the only option you can think of to stop the distress, help if access more information (by reaching out and getting support) to introduce other options for a way forward.
Often your brain is like a computer programme in these situations, in as far as, it needs new ‘data’ (information on other routes out of distress) imputed to help it ‘re-calculate’ a less self-destructive way forward.
Don’t judge yourself if you have not got that ‘data’ within you already, who does have all the answers to deal with unexpected challenges life throws up, nobody! How can you know how to power though a life landmark or challenge before you encounter it? You can’t but there is always someone else out there who will have insight and wisdom to share to help you view things differently and make more constructive choices.
For some, thoughts can start to turn to suicidal intent/planning. If this is you, please stop, no matter how far you may feel you are in terms of going down the road to ending your life, you can always pause, turn back and give yourself time to find a different way.
If you are in that place of planning or about to act, see this as your brain sending you the strongest possible signal that you need to seek out help, immediately!
If you were in intense physical pain and suffering profoundly you would think nothing of asking a loved one to help you, dialling 999, or walking into a hospital accident and emergency department and seeking emergency medical advice and support to alleviate that physical suffering. That is the wise thing to do, to ask someone to intervene when you are at your most physically vulnerable.
It is exactly the same when you are at your psychologically most vulnerable, seek immediate psychological support (from a trusted friend, family member or even phone for an ambulance, or present yourself an accident and emergency department if you need to). Night or day, those people will want to hear from you and want to help you over that crisis. You will not be a burden or a nuisance, those that love you and those who are medical professionals will only ever want to help.
The Risk Factors
The Mental Health Foundation website highlights some of the environmental and personal influencers that can leave an individual increasingly vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and behaviours as follows:
- A person having difficulties accessing or receiving care for their distress.
- A person having ‘easy’ access to means of suicide/self-harm.
- The stigma associated with mental health which can prevent someone seeking help.
- Living in poverty.
- Living with experiences of trauma/abuse.
- Living with experiences of discrimination/prejudice.
- Isolation and lack of social support.
- Dealing with relationship breakdown.
- Dealing with loss or conflicts.
- A history of previous suicide attempts or suicide in the family.
- A history of self-harming behaviours.
- Living with mental ill-health.
- Problematic relationships with drugs and alcohol.
- Living with financial pressures.
- Living with a serious physical illness and/or chronic pain.
It is not a given that someone exposed to the risks listed above will develop suicidal thoughts or intent. However a bit like with our physical health, we all know that eating a poor diet, smoking, lack of exercise, family history of physical conditions and our life circumstance can all increase our risk of physical ill-health or early death. So having a lot of the above risk factors above present in someone’s life can increase their risk of feeling suicidal.
How to Help Others
All of us would want to do everything we can to help someone who is psychologically at their most vulnerable and at heightened risk of suicide and we all can.
Think firstly of those groups in society most at risk, men and men of a certain age. Can we help them to overcome outdated societal constructs of what it means to be a man, and support them to develop their emotional intelligence and articulation skills?
A very good practical way it to get into the habit of asking the boys and men in your life “how are you?” and really want to know the answer and then give them time to answer and time to find the words they may not be used to saying. Then ask them again and keep asking them until they get more practiced and adept at the skill of emotional articulation.
Raise our boys to see that being emotional and expressing it is not ‘unmanly’ and challenge the quite frankly outdated b**ls**t that says it is.
We all encounter life landmarks and all need support when we do. Just because the men in your life don’t ask for help at that point does not mean they do not need it. It may be that they just do not know how to ask for it. So offer your help, don’t wait to be asked and let them know you are always there for them whenever they might want or need your assistance.
Promote a culture of seeking out experts when we reach the limits of our own knowledge, whether that be a teacher to help with our education, a doctor to help with our physical health or a counsellor to help with our psychological health.
If you have a strong suspicion that a man in your life is moving into the area of suicidal intent/action, speak up and open up a dialogue with them about your concerns. The Samaritans website notes: “Suicide can be a taboo topic. Often people who are feeling suicidal don’t want to worry or burden anyone with how they feel and so they don’t discuss it. But by asking someone directly about suicide, you can give them permission to tell you how they feel. People who have felt suicidal will often say what a huge relief it was to be able to talk about what they were experiencing.”
Help them to see beyond the immediate psychological crisis and remind them of how much they are loved and valued and when ready, support them to seek out alternative pathways forward.
If you are in your heart concerned that someone you love is at immediate risk of suicidal action, act now.
If you suspected someone you loved was seriously physically unwell, you would phone an ambulance or get them to hospital even before you were sure of what was going on. You would trust your instinct here. Even if nothing serious turned out to be wrong, you would be at peace in yourself, knowing you did not delay or take a chance to see how things would turn out.
Same thing applies if sense someone is actively suicidal. Trust your instinct and if need be, go to their door, call an ambulance for them. or take them to accident and emergency. If you have any doubts, act now, your loved one might resist or even criticise you for doing this, but better to err on the side of caution. Relationships can be repaired at a later stage if needed as long as that person is still here.
How to Help Yourself
Firstly, show yourself compassion and love and do not judge or criticise yourself for getting into a vulnerable place or not having all the solutions to hand. You are only human, you naturally will have limits of psychological endurance and how can you know how to respond to life challenges or situations you have never encountered before.
Do whatever you can to immediately self-nurture, self-care and self-soothe. This will reassure your inner self that you have heard that internal fire alarm going off and you are going to attend to it in time.
Give yourself time and space to come to an alternative pathway forward. There truly is always a alternative to suicide as a way out of psychological distress. It might take a while (and some help) to find that alternative pathway and that is ok. There is no rush.
Try to think past this immediate crisis in your life. Look back and look forward and see that you are strong, loved and capable and have overcome adversity in the past and have lots of as yet unexplored potential to achieve in your future.
Life changes, it may have recently changed for the worse, but it can and will change again and with some conscious effort and support, that change can be for the positive.
If you are feeling particularly vulnerable, take time (ideally with someone you trust) to draw up a safety plan. This is a plan of action for immediate steps you can and will take when feeling highly at risk of self-harm to self-soothe, distract, reach out and remove means of doing yourself harm. Plan ahead so if that psychological low-point hits, you have a plan at hand you can pick up and follow.
When you are ready and feel a bit more on an emotional equilibrium, find the right person for you (friend, family member, counsellor, GP etc) to do some focused work with to explore options for a pathway forward to positively change your life circumstances and then to support you as you take the first steps along that path.
Nobody is infallible, nobody has limitless levels of resilience, nobody will have all the answers inside them to know how to respond to and overcome complex challenges life can throw at us.
It is ok not to be ok and to feel overwhelmed, that is to be human.
We can all feel lost sometimes, lost in a way of living that is causing us pain, or lost to know how to move forward to alleviate suffering. Nobody should or has to go it alone in these circumstances, as hard as it can be to do, reach out for a helping hand in whatever way you can.
It is not a sign of weakness to admit you are lost and need help. It is a sign of tremendous strength and wisdom. There are others out there (often closer to you than you realise) who will be delighted and honoured to hold your hand and comfort you through the tough times and who will do all they can to help you to find a pathway out of your distress
Others Who Can Help
It is entirely understandable that speaking out to family and friends can be difficult. You do not want to worry or burden them. However, no doubt you would only be too willing to step up and be there for someone who needed you, so give those who love you that same chance to step up and be there for you.
For many people who are troubled by thoughts of suicide or who have developed suicidal intent, their GP can be a great starting point. A GP will know all of the services and supports available local to you and can if useful, also prescribe medication to temporarily alleviate some of your distress to create some mental and emotional space to let you start to make plans to find and follow your new path.
There are also a whole load of community and voluntary agencies who have set up and who’s whole reason for being is to help others alleviate symptoms of profound psychological distress and who are ready, willing and entirely wanting to help you deal with thoughts of suicide.
Many operate 24 hours a day and remember, their whole purpose of being in existence is to try to prevent suicide, so you will never be bothering or annoying them if you reach out.
The Samaritans website will tell you how to get in touch with them free 24/7 and covers both all of the UK (including Northern Ireland) and Ireland. Freephone 116 123 anytime.
In Northern Ireland, the Lifeline NI website will tell you how to get in touch with them free 24/7. Freephone 0808 808 8000.
The Pieta website will tell you all about the free services they offer in Ireland, Freephone 1 800 247 247
In England the SOS Suicide of Silence service can offer free support between 8am and midnight. Phone 0300 1020 505