Worrying us to death
The Samaritans' 'suicide awareness' campaign is enough to drive young men over the edge, say Brendan O'Neill and Fenno Outen
'Suicide in young men is one of the most important public health problems of our time', said the former chief medical officer Sir Donald Acheson in February, at the launch of a Samaritans campaign to 'rescue' the young male population. 'It is the tip of a huge iceberg of misery in our society.'
And the headline figures do make disturbing reading. The suicide rate for men aged between 15 and 24 has more than doubled since the 1970s. Of the 608 15 to 24-year olds who committed suicide in England and Wales in 1997, 502 were male, meaning that young men are five times more likely to commit suicide than young women. In the early 1990s, for the first time the suicide rate for men aged 15 to 44 rose above the suicide rate for men aged over 45. Today, suicide accounts for 26 percent of overall deaths in men aged 15 to 24, and is the second most common cause of death in men under 35.
A good reason, maybe, for the Samaritans to launch their campaign to address the 'rising tide of suicide in young men', in association with the Men's Health Forum and the Doctor Patient Partnership. Ten thousand posters were distributed to schools, colleges, health centres and youth clubs, with the words 'Think the world would be a better place without you? Think again'. 'The aim is to encourage young men who are feeling low to seek help and to talk about their problems', said Dr Ian Banks, chairman of the Men's Health Forum. But is the need for this campaign as great as it seems?
Every suicide is a tragedy, particularly when an otherwise healthy young person cuts his life short. But the focus on the 'suicide epidemic' in young men is happening at a time when, according to the Department of Health, 'the overall rate of suicide is falling'. Men's health experts point to the rise in young male suicide since the 1970s - but even here there has been a decline of 18 percent in the suicide rate for 15 to 24-year olds over the past six years.
The 'suicide awareness' campaign is specifically aimed at men aged 15 to 24 - yet their suicide rate is actually slightly lower than other male age groups. It may be shocking to hear that suicide 'accounts for 26 percent of overall deaths in young men' - until you realise that, in relation to other age groups, not that many 15 to 24-year olds die every year. This age group is predominantly healthy, and at low risk from heart disease, cancer and other natural causes of death - so it is not surprising that self-induced death should feature highly as a percentage.
The fact that young men are being specifically targeted by suicide awareness at a time when the suicide rate for young men has fallen, suggests that less obvious concerns are driving this campaign.
Those calling for increased awareness about suicide often seem less interested in targeting those individual young men who are seriously depressed than in highlighting a broader 'problem' of male attitudes and behaviour. As the Independent commented in its report on the launch of the campaign: 'The traditional male attitude to despair - to maintain a stiff upper lip at all times - contribute[s] to the tragedy of suicide.' (23 February) Simon Armson, chief executive of the Samaritans, spelled it out more clearly: 'That stiff upper lip is continuing to prevail. It has softened a little bit but we have a long way to go before young men in particular feel comfortable talking about their problems....Our view is that we have to reach out to people to tell them how vitally important it is to talk about and share feelings.'
Health ministers and health bodies have been concerned for some time about young men's apparent unwillingness to take their health seriously and to talk about their problems. Health professionals are forever encouraging young men to look inwards at themselves, to become more concerned with their emotional, spiritual and physical wellbeing. The suicide awareness campaign is aimed at all young men, everywhere - in colleges, health centres, youth clubs, and so on - because its primary aim is to worry the young male population into getting more 'in touch' with their feelings and to be open about their problems. But surely what is really unhealthy is the notion that young men should be obsessed with their mental health and have a morbid 'awareness' of suicide?
The statistics themselves suggest that the vast majority of 15 to 24-year old men are healthy, happy and well able to cope with life - and should be left alone to do precisely that. The tiny minority of young men who are seriously ill or depressed and wish to end their lives need urgent professional help. Neither of these groups needs an 'awareness' campaign to get them to talk about their feelings.
Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999