At the age of 10, I lost my father to suicide. Prior to this, I had watched him become increasingly distant and unresponsive to any form of love or interaction. It was something I was slowly beginning to accept. We’d never had a particularly strong relationship, but I was close enough to him to notice that something wasn’t quite right.
I remember the evening he took his own life, walking to the local shops with him, trying desperately to stimulate conversation. I spent most of the trip coming up with ideas of things we could do together, attempting to ignite his interest in some way, but he still remained very muted and unresponsive. Little did I know that a few hours later he would be dead.
As a family, we were aware that he had faced some challenges – business problems, an extra-marital affair, a difficult childhood and upbringing – but because he never spoke about them, we never really knew the depth to which he was suffering. He had close friends who reached out to him, but somewhere along the way, all the care and support simply failed to make a difference.
At school, some friends and teachers were initially unable to talk to me or look me in the eye and this very quickly made me realise how taboo the subject of suicide actually is. The thought of discussing what happened to him seemed quite unsettling, and more often than not I simply avoided it.
It wasn’t until I entered my early twenties that I started to feel comfortable talking about how my father died. It was through being open about his suicide that I ended up having some incredible conversations with others, which over time has helped me to become at peace with what happened.
It’s also enabled me to reflect on how and why suicide in men has got to where it has, along with my own observations and experiences of growing up as a young man.
Traditionally, boys tend to be less familiar and comfortable articulating their emotions. The ability to attach words to feelings is not something that perhaps comes as naturally to boys as it does to girls, and this can potentially be one of the influences that can lead to something as extreme as suicide further down the line.
There is still this assumption that men like to talk about ‘things’ and less about how they ‘feel’ about those things. This is something that I believe strongly has to change if we want to break the cycle of men bottling up their emotions.
A lot of this can be put down to how boys and men form friendships. Whereas girls tend to form genuine emotional bonds quite naturally, for boys it can be less straight forward. More often than not, friendships tend to be united around shared interests i.e/ if you enjoy playing football, the chances are most of your close friends will also play football.
The reality is, that even if you appear to have friends, you may not have any friends that you can actually share struggles and emotions with, out of fear of jeopardising the very status the friendship is built upon. There is still a tendency to believe that being open about your emotions is a weakness, yet the frightening stats on suicide in young men clearly prove that not to be the case.
That being said, through my experiences of working as a coach and mentor with young people, I see a lot more freedom of expression and a celebration of individuality in today’s youth. Initiatives like The Great Men Project are taking practical action in opening up the discussion and encouraging boys and young men to question certain preconceptions around masculinity and how best to move things forward.
I’m convinced that if we were to normalise boys and men talking about how they feel, as a society we would become less judgemental about what is deemed acceptable for how men should be. It’s not a question of encouraging men to lose or let go of any sense of themselves, but rather to bring forth the latent potential that enables feelings to be expressed naturally, without the need for suppression or diversion.
It’s reassuring to see the subject of male mental health and well-being gaining more exposure in the press, but we must remember that ultimately it is we ourselves who hold the power to change the tide. A culture of openness and acceptance will create the conditions for more men to feel comfortable sharing how they truly feel.
On the surface, my father was someone who had everything, yet he still chose to end his life. If his suicide has taught me anything, it’s the importance to not hesitate in getting things out in the open, to share challenges and struggles with those you trust and to not be afraid of expressing who you truly are. I still continue to work on these skills myself and I deeply recognise them to be the remedy for the generations of men who choose to give up on their lives each day.