Last week, the suicides of two NHL players inspired part 1 of the men and suicide series. In it, I discussed depression, suicide, and the masculine code of silence which ultimately acts as a muzzle on men and boys, keeping them from freely expressing their feelings, and putting them at emotional and physical risk.
In an attempt to cast a light on this topic and begin a dialogue about the way we treat males in our society and hopefully improve support systems for men and boys, this week we’ll look at factors understood to lead some males to suicide, including what I consider to be the abusive treatment of boys in our society, the impact of bullying, and imposed gender roles.
As we saw in part 1, the male suicide rate is an average of three times higher than female suicide rates in most countries, with males using more lethal methods of suicide than females. (Females have a higher rate of suicide attempts than males, their actions suggesting a call for help rather than a sincere desire to die.)
Males learn to emotionally stifle themselves in order to become what society believes a man should be, and should a young man stray from this unnatural masculine persona, he runs the risk of ridicule, shame, and torment, sure to leave nasty, lingering memories and feelings of anger, self-loathing, and depression, sometimes leading to suicide.
When we pressure boys to always be strong, be brave, and withhold their feelings (via a reward/punishment system, for example), this to me, reads as a collective abuse of boys. In allowing this, we are stripping away what makes them human, and I think it is time we began questioning this type of sexist treatment of boys.
In The Myth of Male Power, Warren Farrell sees a pattern in the anxieties that boys experience, a repeating pattern that make boys feel less than equal to girls:
“By addicting boys more to girl’s bodies than vice-versa… [this addiction is fed if not planted by the media that makes the female body very accessible for ready consumption - look on any magazine rack for a plethora of unnecessary feminine body parts]. This reinforces boys performing for girls, pursing girls, and paying for girls to compensate for their inequality. When they perform and pursue inequality – or feel they will never be able to earn enough to afford what they are addicted to, this creates anxiety which in its extreme form, leads to suicide.”
Abusive behaviour common in childhood is bullying. Bullying.org defines bullying as a person or group trying to hurt or control another person in a harmful way.
“In bullying, there is a difference in power between those being hurt and those doing the hurting, bullying involves hurtful behaviours that are repeated and intentional. Bullying is not about a conflict that needs resolving. In bullying, the power is all in one person or a group’s control. People who bully others show loathing and contempt for those they are trying to hurt.”
Bullying can have deeply psychological and long-lasting effects for both sexes and have bearing on the child as an adult; bullying can damage self-esteem and self-confidence, and in boys who are not encouraged to discuss their troubles with anyone, bullying may even lead to violence.
In their article, Suicide by mass murder: Masculinity, aggrieved entitlement, and rampage school shootings, sociologists Rachel Kalish and Michael Kimmel discuss the relation between young men who take assault weapons to school and go on shooting sprees and bullying:
“Nearly all had stories of being mercilessly and constantly teased, picked on, and threatened. Most strikingly, it was not because they were gay (at least there is no evidence to suggest that any of them were gay), but because they were different from the other boys – shy, bookish, honour students, artistic, musical, theatrical, non-athletic, ‘geekish’ or weird.”
“For some boys,” Kalish and Kimmel say, “high school is a constant homophobic gauntlet, and they may respond by becoming withdrawn and sullen, using drugs or alcohol, becoming depressed or suicidal, or acting out in a blaze of over-compensating violent ‘glory’.”
To get a sense of what it is like to be bullied, the authors quoted the work of fellow sociologist, Ralph Larkin, known for his analysis of the 1999 Columbine high school rampage that saw 13 people killed plus the suicides of the two murderers at the scene. Larkin was interested to learn about the power of bullying and interviewed marginalized boys who experienced the pain of ridicule and torment. Here is one such experience:
Almost on a daily basis, ﬁnding death threats in my locker … People … who I never even met, never had a class with, don’t know who they were to this day. [When I] walked home… every day when they’d drive by, they’d throw trash out their window at me, glass bottles. I’m sorry, you get hit with a glass bottle that’s going forty miles an hour, that hurts pretty bad. Like I said, I never even knew these people, so didn’t even know what their motivation was. But this is something I had to put up with nearly every day for four years.
When bullied boys have nowhere to turn because society expects them to play the “manly” role, what choices does he have? Kimmel says, “Young men are socialized to embrace a set of behaviours designed to prove or assert their masculinity, and taught to use violence, especially in response to threats against one’s manhood.”
The suicide class
Shame, inadequacy, and vulnerability all threaten the self, and as Kimmel says, “[v]iolence is restorative, compensatory.” He and Kalish suggest that young men who grow up in a world where they are socialized to see violence as a way to prove their manhood, violence becomes a legitimate response to the perceived humiliation. (It’s the socialized theme of every Western that was ever made – “American men don’t get mad; they get even.”)
So when their nascent masculinity is challenged or threatened, young men who have been stripped of their right and possibly their ability to communicate, may feel isolated, dark, sullen, and hopeless, sometimes turning their anger outside to violently punish those who tormented them like the bullied young men at Columbine, or turn their anger inside, where feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred can turn against the self.
When the boy grows into a man, he does not necessarily leave threats to his manhood in the school yard. Men’s identities, their sense of what it is to be a man, is often associated with their work, and if there is a loss of work or threat of loss of work, it can have devastating effects.
With the loss of work/identity/manhood, Farrell says that men can feel “humiliated, violated, helpless, angry, guilty, self-blaming, depressive, lower in self-esteem, and suicidal. Their vulnerability leaves them feeling powerless, as if the whole world were an elephant and they were an ant.”
He maintains that until we hear men communicate their suffering, men “will be rough, tough cream puffs: the suicide class.”
I have attempted to provide some reasons to understand the condition of boys and men and how and why they might turn to violence or suicide to deal with their problems. I certainly don’t want to gloss over anyone’s individual story of depression or suicide, but the findings in the research suggest a common core in men’s depression and suicide: stunted or damaged self-esteem.
To begin to change things for the better, Warren Farrell suggests that we begin in child-rearing to “counter boy’s socialization and the socialization of girls who love boys who pay, perform, and pursue; to stop subsidizing male child abuse in the form of football and calling it “education”, to develop programs to prevent men from being 95% of the prisoners, and 85% of the homeless; to do for men what we would do for women.”
Of grown men and suicide, he says, “The single biggest solution to male suicide is making men feel needed as humans. Not just wallets. When men feel needed primarily as wallets, they are more likely to commit suicide when their wallets are empty. Many men have a deep need to send warning signals, but their belief that they have no right to ask others to rescue them from a disaster they feel they must have brought upon themselves, keeping them from even letting themselves know they have that need.” (Italics mine.)
American psychiatrist, Dr. James Gilligan, is an expert on violence. Dr. Gilligan works with men in prison and says that the best way to rehabilitate is through love, through nurture, and through education, not through punishment.
“The human soul, the human psyche, needs love in order to survive, just as specifically as the body needs oxygen in order to survive… prisoners were like people whose oxygen supply had been cut off, but it was their love supply. And I realized that without love, the soul dies. That’s what these men were telling me – their souls had died; that’s why they were capable of killing other people.”
From Toronto’s The Work of Men, relationship coach, Owen Williams, offers this advice for supporting men: ”The most important relationship for a man is the one with his father and then the quality of his friendships with other men. A depressed man usually has a poor support system in the realm of male friends. A man needs at least five other men in his life who will challenge, love and champion him to be his best. Men need to be supported in their greatness. We love to rise to the challenge of life and we cannot do it by ourselves.”
When it comes to depression, Williams asks men to look at depression as an absence of joy.
“A powerful area to explore would be to look at where joy is missing from a man’s life. Real joy that is! Not what a man thinks he needs to have in his life to gain the approval of others, what he needs to have to gain his own approval. In short, the most effective cure for depression is action. When a man steps up despite the feelings of inertia that inevitably accompany depression, he will liberate himself from the condition.”
From my work in the gay men’s outreach program at the AIDS Committee of Toronto, I know that when people feel badly about themselves, they are more likely they are to harm themselves or put themselves at risk. I also know from working with men and their image, that when a man feels good about himself, he treats himself well and his relationships improve, so I see image work as a harm reduction model because it builds self-esteem.
There are a variety of ways to make life better for men and boys, but ultimately it begins with us. Think about what you’ve read here today and decide what you want to do – sustain masculine anxiety by allowing an abusive and unfair gender system that mistreats males, or will you choose to help men and boys build their self-esteem through kindness and nurture, appreciating them for who they are and what they can do?
It’s up to you.