Men and suicide part 1

8 Sep

The hockey world has been rocked by the deaths of three players in the last four months. In May, 28-year-old New York Ranger, Derek Boogaard, was found dead of an overdose of alcohol and painkiller, oxycodone. August saw the deaths of former Winnipeg Jet, Rick Rypien, 27, and 35-year-old forward/defence man and former Maple Leaf, Wade Belak. Both apparently hung themselves. All young men made their livings as NHL “enforcers”, also known as “tough guys” or “goons”, and at least two of them suffered from depression.

The deaths of these three young men have sparked today’s difficult and complex post. There is so much to discuss that I have chosen to break it up into two parts. Today, I will attempt to discuss depression, suicide, and the masculine code of silence. Next week, I will examine the treatment of boys in our society, socialized sex roles and gender behaviour, and possible ways to support men – a stride to improve society at large.

NHL “enforcer”

Boogaard, Rypien, and Belak played unofficial NHL positions whose job it was to “deter and respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the enforcer is expected to respond aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Enforcers are expected to react particularly harshly to violence against star players or goalies.” (Wikipedia)

The life of an NHL enforcer “involves hard hits and playing a role that may seem unnatural,” says Ross Bernstein, a sports journalist whose book The Code details the culture of fighting in the NHL.

“[The enforcer is] the toughest job in sports because 99 per cent of the battles are for other people, they’re constantly injured … and they know there are 10 guys willing to do their job,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

The Globe & Mail  reports that these three untimely deaths have led to calls to “ban fighting in hockey, to monitor concussions more closely, to address the abuse of prescription painkillers by athletes and to provide more post-career support to former hockey players,”  but something is missing from this list, something very important.

Rypien suffered from depression and took two leaves of absences in three seasons. Wade Belak’s mother has reported that her son suffered from depression as well. Both of these young men suffered in silence, a silence that for some reason is expected of men; an imposed silence that is very much to our society’s detriment.

Men’s depression

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) sees depression as the most common mood disorder, affecting 10% of us. Depression can bring on feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, constant tiredness, an inability to have fun, and thoughts of death or suicide.

“Experts in the field suggest that a suicidal person is feeling so much pain that they can see no other option. They feel that they are a burden to others, and in desperation see death as a way to escape their overwhelming pain and anguish. The suicidal state of mind has been described as constricted, filled with a sense of self-hatred, rejection, and hopelessness.”

Depression can be bleak, miserable, and dark. As someone who experiences depression from time to time, I can tell you that it is NOT a nice place to be and it is a very deep hole to dig oneself out of. As a woman, I will experience and express depression differently than the way a man will because if I decide to talk about it, it is more socially acceptable for me to express my feelings and ask for help, and I probably won’t be labelled as “weak” for it. In our present society, men are not granted the same empathetic response that a woman in crisis may receive, and sadly, he may be ridiculed or otherwise mistreated for what he cannot control.

National Post columnist, Aaron Sands, wrote an excellent piece this week discussing his own depression and the stigma attached to Wade Belak’s mental illness, which Sands believes is Belak’s true cause of death. If we want to take a step forward in masculine social support, it is imperative that we take men’s mental health seriously and give men a voice to express themselves. This should not be thought of as a sign of weakness, on the contrary, it should be thought of as being human.

“Men have a hard time with depression because it is seen as weakness,” says Owen Williams, relationship coach at Toronto’s The Work of Men. ”In the world we live in, despite all the technological advances that we have made, the one area that we fall short on is redefining masculinity. To be a man still means to be strong, having it all together and fighting the “good fight” which in short, means to suck it up. We are still in the dark ages here.”

Sociologists Michael S. Kimmel and Jeff Hearn, in Handbook of Studies on Men and Masculinities, describe men’s learned or socially-imposed stoicism as violence toward the self: “stuffing” their emotions and trying to reach a traditional masculine ideal that rejects feminine emotionality. Young men are discouraged to express emotion (with the exception of anger, which I believe has become a default emotion for males because they have been taught to recognize few others), and “they often fail to learn the language with which they could describe their feelings, and without language it is hard for anyone to make sense of what he feels.”

During the men’s movement of the 1990s, the Iron John period when men were encouraged to (re)discover masculine archetypes, go to the forest, beat on drums, and unleash their Wild Man, Warren Farrell wrote a book called The Myth of Male Power. In it, he challenges men to be responsible for themselves and their actions, including the responsibility of helping themselves to express their emotions and depression.

At least at the time the book was written, Farrell unfortunately did not see a lot of men taking this initiative.

“Men are still most likely to buy adventure books, financial journals, and sports magazines that teach men to solve problems, overcome barriers, or repress feelings. There are few men’s shelters, “masculinist” psychologists, men’s crisis lines, or men’s centres.”

I think the world is a little better for men since Farrell wrote his book, and men’s services, from spas to image consulting to psychotherapy are taking hold and offering men freedom and safety to explore and appreciate themselves. The world is slowly recognizing the need to take men seriously, but the shame of reaching out for help still burns within so many.

Depression can lead to suicide

Globe & Mail columnist, Andre Picard, recently explained the stigma attached to mental illness for men. Picard recognizes the social expectation of boys to silently internalize their pain, act tough, and not show their natural feelings.

“This silence can be fatal,” he says, “Yet the continuing carnage that results – more men die by suicide than in motor vehicle collisions – is largely hidden away and invisible.”

The Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention (CASP) says that suicide is one of the top ten leading causes of death. In 2005 in Canada, suicide accounted for 3,743 deaths in 2005 with a male to female suicide ratio of 3:1. The World Health Organization’s international suicide rates reflects this trend and reports that in some countries, male suicide rates are over 6 times higher than women’s. It has been noted that elderly and very young men (15 – 25) constitute these high rates of suicide.

Kimmel and Hearn say that “[o]ne explanation for boy’s higher rates of lethality from suicide attempts is that males adopt more traditionally “masculine” methods (i.e. guns or knives) and psychological postures (e.g. aggression, goal-directedness, passion to succeed, and denial of feelings) when attempting to kill themselves.”

Masculine silence is one of our key problems in trying to keep men and boys healthy. This rather bizarre and unnatural practice of teaching boys not to recognize and express their feelings, insisting on their constant strength, and not allowing them a voice is not doing anyone any favours, especially the boys themselves. By supporting the idea of keeping men stoic and silent, we’re expecting men to fend for themselves in a world they were not properly trained to operate in, a world that denies them the outlets and the support they deserve. If a more supportive system for males existed in our society, our three late enforcers might still be with us.

“We really need to offer men a comfortable and empathetic environment to express themselves,” Warren Farrell says, “Anything less is a crime against masculinity.”

6 Responses to “Men and suicide part 1”

  1. Jess September 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    Great article and a really good discussion on a very serious issue. My dad had at least one friend that I know of who committed suicide – and I believe it affected him deeply. Thank you for writing this. I look forward to the second part.

    • Leah Morrigan September 8, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Jess. I’m glad that the post is helpful to people. Part 2 promises to be fascinating.

      Sorry about your Dad and his friend. Just a thought: would it help your Dad to read this post?


  2. Tim Barton September 8, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    Leah, I read this with much interest, and found it very enlightening. I would like to comment a little because, living in Japan, I have learned all too clearly about suicide rates in Japan. I have no exact figures, but I have heard Japan has some of the highest rates of suicide and mental illness among industrialized countries.

    Perhaps I have told you about a former employee at my company, whose name was Yoshi. He was employed in the sports and fitness division of our school, and as a gentleman he was unparalleled in our company. Yoshi was a gentle giant–a muscular fellow with a smile everyday, not to mention customary but, I feel, honest greetings without fail. His English was impressive, and his personality was warm and so very likeable.

    One day I arrived at work to find one of my co-workers, Raji, in a rather glum state. It wasn’t like Raji, another gentle giant, an impossibly good-looking man with an always pleasant personality–loved by staff and students alike, Raji was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to Australia just after the whites-only restriction was lifted. He suffered racial bullying and blatant discrimination as a boy, so he decided he ought to take care of himself, and took to body-building. It was always amazing that Raji never expressed any bitterness about his early years in Australia. His motto at work was this: do your best, but enjoy yourself and get what you can through your teaching. I’ll never forget his philosophy. When I get down about work, I think of Raji’s words.

    Anyway, it came as a surprise when I encountered Raji in such a state. Before I could ask what was wrong, he told me about Yoshi. Yoshi had just committed suicide, after a very brief marriage apparently gone wrong. I never found out the details of his exact motivation to take his own life, but the day that followed was cast in a shadow of shock, confusion and sadness.

    It was all too late for sweet Yoshi, and I still feel the sadness I felt that day when I think of him.

    As you know, the Japanese have a long history of honour in death. It isn’t uncommon to hear in the news of a failed business and the resulting suicide of said business’s president. But suicide touches all levels of Japanese society. It isn’t all shame or honour; much of it comes from bullying–Japan is still a society in which the bullies reign supreme, and there is little to no support for the victims. I also suspect most of those victims, as well as most suicides, are male. Not all, but probably the majority.

    Until there is some real dialogue about male depression and suicide everywhere–and you have given it a good start–we’ll see more victims, more lives cut too short. It is time to change that. It is time to open the dialogue and get to the root of this issue.

    I look forward to your second part of this article.


    • Leah Morrigan September 11, 2011 at 10:41 am #

      Thank you so much for your comment, Tim. Yoshi’s is a sad story and so is Raji’s. It is truly amazing what we put each other through. I will be touching on the reasons that may drive men to suicide in part 2 – including bullying.

      I checked the World Heath Organization’s site for suicide rates in Japan: per 100,000 people in 2009, 36.2 males compared to 13.2 females committed suicide. With Japan’s enormous population, that’s a lot of unnecessary deaths and again, an enormous gap between the sexes. I sincerely hope that this and next week’s post starts a dialogue and brings the issue to the forefront, hopefully making a difference to those that are in such pain.


  3. Jess September 9, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    Oh this happened quite a while ago and he said that he was seeing a counsellor about it at the time – which is actually a big deal coming from him. He would never have told me something like that before. So it’s a good example of how talking about the issue can really help!

    • Leah Morrigan September 11, 2011 at 10:23 am #

      Indeed! Talking things out on its own is incredibly powerful. I hope things get better for your father, Jess.

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