Tag Archives: suicide

Men and suicide part 2

15 Sep

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.

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 shootingssociologists 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.

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.”