Men will die to preserve their identity, and far too often they do!
The continuing rise in suicides over the last few decades should be of great concern to us all, and men are dominating the statistics, representing 75% of all self-harm deaths. Suicide ranks as the tenth leading cause of death in males, and first in men under 45. Something is clearly wrong, and appears to be getting worse.
But why? Why do men commit suicide?
Obviously, there can be a number of factors — broken relationships, separation from children, financial challenges, redundancy, isolation, abuse, fatherlessness, addictions, mental and physical illness may all contribute. However, there is a thread common to nearly all of these issues — a loss of identity.
Identity is our image of ‘who we are’ — how we define and present ourselves. It includes our gender, race and nationality; our career, relationships, family and community; our personality, purpose, beliefs and values; and how we integrate with the world around us. Men tend to align themselves with a defined and coherent identity, whereas women are far more adaptable. This is because masculine energy is very focussed and channelled as opposed to the feminine which flows and changes to connect with different people and situations. Men also place a higher value on ‘purpose’, likely because it’s something they have to ’seek and find’ whereas women instinctively ‘know’ their purpose (although they may choose alternative goals and pursuits).
When a man’s current conditions don’t align with his identity, he knows something needs to be fixed. Warning lights flash and sirens wail, and he’ll look to correct the external causes of the imbalance. However, if he is ‘helpless’ to make any change because of circumstances beyond his control (e.g. forced bankruptcy or a court ruling), a sense of ’hopelessness’ can set in. Now, he’s in trouble. He cannot live congruent to his identity, although he’ll likely continue playing the role. His conflict results in a lack of concern for himself manifesting as shame, guilt, worthlessness, addictions and self-harm, or a lack of concern for the world around him, showing up as blaming, recklessness, erratic behaviour and sometimes violence.
When a man reaches this point, he craves his ‘purpose’ and significance most of all. And sometimes, tragically, he believes he can serve no other useful function than a legacy or cautionary tale. He makes an impromptu exit, choosing to preserve the identity of ‘who he was’ in favour of ‘who he now is or fears he’ll become’.
Many think suicide is an act of selfishness, but in the nonsensical mind of a man imprisoned by this situation, he sees himself as little more than a burden and bad example — suicide is as much a sacrifice as it is an escape from his pain. And for those left behind that ‘never saw the signs’, this is the reason why. He wasn’t necessarily depressed or mentally ill (although this may have been a symptom), he simply believed he had no reason to live, no purpose to serve. And that was enough.
So, what can we do?
We need to better understand and appreciate the importance of identity and purpose when it comes to men, never underestimate the severity of any such loss or damage, and acknowledge how difficult it is for men to overcome the challenge of letting go of who they believe they are or were.
We need to think about the lives of men rather than just their demeanours. Observe their actions rather than simply hear their words. An “Are you okay?” is all well and good, however men express themselves far more in ‘what they do’ over ‘what they say’. A departure from routine habits and behaviours, particularly if there is a shift towards addictions such as alcohol and drugs, is a sure sign that something’s wrong.
When things aren’t okay —
Encourage him to get help, and enforce that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness. This might include medical intervention when depression, anxiety or mental illness are evident, therapy where trauma is involved, and/or coaching to help reframe and rebuild his path towards a new and better life.
Make him aware that how you and others see him is not necessarily how he sees himself. That your appreciation of him runs deeper and wider than simply his achievements and associations. This will help him to understand that parts of his identity are multi-dimensional and malleable, allowing him to explore new possibilities.
Let him know that it’s okay to shed his former skin, and help him to build a compelling picture of the future – a vision of who he can be and what he can do with all he has experienced and learned. Revive old dreams and desires that he had once abandoned, and create exciting new ones that are built on his interests and most likely to reignite his fire.
Give him the room to let go, experiment, create and to make mistakes along the way. Remember, this is difficult for a man, so offer your support and guidance without judgement. Let him find his own way. And understand that he will thrive on appreciation, accomplishment and success. His ego needs to feed at this time. So, acknowledge him for who he is, empower him for who he wants to be, and celebrate all of his victories along the way.
Don’t be afraid to give him responsibilities and ask for his help. Suggest vehicles on how he might contribute to others and the world around him. Remember, the masculine energy is called to serve and protect. By demonstrating that he is ‘needed’ for the wellbeing, prosperity and security of others, he is called to serve part of his innate purpose which, in turn, strengthens his identity.
And finally, be patient. There will be times of confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, exhaustion, hopelessness, introversion and self-deprecation. Time and tolerance is what’s required, both by him and those around him.
And, one final note —
Let’s stop with the current social narratives that men should become less masculine.
Whilst I applaud efforts to give men the freedom to be vulnerable without judgement or questioning of their masculinity, I believe it’s entirely counterproductive to then suggest men are in some way wrong or ‘toxic’ for demonstrating innately masculine traits. This type of doctrine only separates men further from their identity, and weakens their position to address a crisis. In my honest and heartfelt opinion, many of these messages are simply adding fuel to the suicide fire.