Features | Health & Wellness

Dying To Be Heard

Men in particular lack safe spaces for open and honest talk.

Did you know that loneliness is a bigger predictor of death than smoking cigarettes or inactivity? It’s also a huge risk factor for suicide – particularly among men.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among men, namely those ages 15-44, according to Statistics Canada; and in the U.S., white men over 65 die by suicide at three times the normal rate, and are eight times more likely to die by suicide than women in that age bracket. In the UK, 12 men die of suicide every day, and it’s the number one killer of men under 45.

“Men and suicide? I think about it a lot, and I am deeply troubled by it,” says Mark Vander Vennen, executive director at Shalem Mental Health Network in Hamilton, Ont.

In addition to loneliness, he mentioned the #MeToo movement, and the shifting of roles in society today.

“The movement is long overdue and I celebrate it, but it does cause a lot of men to question what it is to be a man. There’s no context to talk about it, and men are not good at talking about it with themselves, which is where the conversation needs to happen.

“Where are the models for being healthy men? What does that look like nowadays?”

A TedX Talk by a young British woman named Steph Slack explores the topic of suicide in light of traditional gender roles and expectations of men.

“What does it mean to be a man?” she asks. “Society tells us men should be strong, dependable and able to provide for their family.” She then notes that suicide is linked to the following risk factors: abuse as a child, single status or relationship breakdown, and financial difficulty or unemployment.

“Not surprisingly,” she says, “these risk factors are linked to those traditional notions of masculinity – of being strong, dependable and able to provide for your family. It seems when men can’t meet those expectations, they make themselves wrong for that.”

She noted that we say we want men to be vulnerable, but when they do break down and cry, it is met – even by women – on a sliding scale between “discomfort and disdain.”

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'Man up'
“Men are told from 18 months old not to cry. To man up,” said Dan West, a Presbyterian minister and former hospital chaplain in Toronto. “I can count on two hands how many men have come to me with something major to discuss. And I’d have fingers left over.”

West noted that in hospitals, the one staff person who has the time and energy to do nothing but listen, is the chaplain. “But guess who’s the first to go when there are budget cuts?”

That men don’t seem to have safe spaces to talk openly and honestly, and, perhaps even more importantly, trusted people who will truly listen, means that men who are experiencing confusion, frustration and sadness over their place in society are left with no way to express these emotions.

West would agree. During his time as a hospital chaplain, where he routinely visited with people who were dying, or with family members of those who had died, he learned to do three things:

1. Sit with them
2. Ask how they’re doing
3. Listen

“I took a 12-month pastoral care course because we’re not taught how to do relationships,” he said. “Not in seminary, or in school as children. “We’re taught all kinds of things we think are important, but we’re not taught about relationships. Turns out, relationships are the only things that are important.”

“I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we had different expectations of men in society? If we had a different reaction to men who have the courage to show us their vulnerability? And a different reaction to men who have suicidal thoughts,” says Slack in her TED Talk. “If we said, it’s okay. I’m here to listen to whatever you need to say or talk about.”

Remember Jennifer (see Mental Health Gaps, Nov. 11, 2019)? She had this advice for CC readers: “You know ‘Bell Let’s Talk’ day? Well I wish it was, ‘Let’s Listen’ day. We do a lot of talking, and it doesn’t go very far. I wish we would listen to the stories that are out there.”

  • Amy is CC’s Features Editor and a freelance writer and communicator with a degree in Journalism and 13 years’ experience at the Presbyterian Record. Amy highlights stories about community-building, families and personal faith, along with bigger, in-the-news issues that challenge, teach and inspire. She lives west of Toronto with her two daughters and three guinea pigs.

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