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Shedding Light on the Complex Problem of Suicide in Young Men

Our community has recently seen a disturbing increase in the number of suicides in young adult males. In fact, we recently had two suicides in just one week. People are beginning to use the “e-word”: epidemic.

These suicides have all been young men, between the ages of 18-22. It’s gut wrenching. The kind of thing that takes your breath away.

And, that’s where the story begins.

He Moves in Mysterious Ways:

I’m writing to you as a man who might be able to shed some light on the subject. I’m not a Pastor or a Therapist. I’m the Dad down the street trying to find some answers.

These young men that passed away are good young men, from good homes. With all the trappings of very upper middle class life. Impressive young men with everything going for them. Or so it seemed from the outside.

So it’s not surprising that the vast majority of friends and family are totally devastated. Confused. Lost.

What Happened?

As outsiders we always ask, “what happened?” As if there’s a logical answer. As if we just don’t have all the facts yet.

We long for information. As if any answer could explain this irrational response to coping with life.

Like when someone dies of lung cancer. We instinctively ask, “did he smoke?” Don’t you desperately want to hear a “yes”? Because it somehow makes us non-smokers feel safer from the ravages of cancer. Or because we want to think it was self-induced. Or that they deserved the cancer for being stupid in the midst of overwhelming evidence of the dangers of smoking. I like to call cigarettes “dumb sticks.” I digress.

In my experience there’s never an answer that solves the suicide mystery for us. Yet we still ask. And we keep asking until we move on to something else.

And in the absence of any intel that satisfies our genuine desire for understanding, we make assumptions about situational factors. “Must’ve been drugs or money or sex or grades or booze. Or all of the above. What happened, anyway?”

We want answers. If only to make us feel better or safer about our own lives and family. We want answers.

We rarely get the answers. Mainly because nobody can go into someone else’s mind. Mainly because we cannot rationally comprehend the forces that drive someone to such a seemingly irrational act. Mainly because men tend to suffer in silence.

We’ve never been there. Never been at a place of utter despair. Never felt as if our lives won’t eventually get better. Never felt that the world would be better off without us. Never felt the desire to “make someone really sorry.” Never wanted our pain to stop so badly that we see suicide as a logical choice. As logically as we might see ourselves taking two Advil to cure a red wine headache.

Hopefully we’ve never been there. Maybe if we had been there the red flags might seem familiar. Like a worn sweatshirt that fits just right. Like a great song you’ve heard before. Familiar. And if it were familiar, it might be easier to recognize those very vague warning signs.

Blame Game:

We want to blame someone.

“Did his parents know something was up?”

“Did anyone see any red-flags indicating he was about to do that?”

Drugs? Depressed? Sad? Angry?

Surely there were warning signs that somebody missed, right? Maybe.

People who feel suicidal often experience a kind of tunnel vision. They lose the ability to see the bigger picture. The walls close in. And the only thing remaining in focus is utter darkness and despair. Yet in the midst of this despair, some studies suggest that a lightness begins to take shape. A lightness that might suggest a lifting of the fog. Only the clarity isn’t a lightness. It’s resolve.

In such circumstances, the individual is unlikely to seek help. They’re wise enough not to share their resolve. Wise enough to know that awareness equals intervention. Wise enough to know that intervention will cause them to lose control.

That apparent wisdom is terribly flawed. Intervention can include a cast of clinicians and professionals most likely to bring the help they desperately need. Professionals who can offer support by listening, offering encouragement, and sometimes even challenging the preconceptions that people hold about their lives such as their abilities and worth to society. And medicine that can immediately quiet the noise in their head. And lift them out of the fog and confusion.

But in men, we don’t often get that chance.

Men are from Mars:

Two decades ago John Gray authored the book, “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.” John explains that “men primarily need trust, acceptance, appreciation, admiration, approval, and encouragement.” And men are motivated when they feel needed. When you take away any of these factors, men no longer feel needed or valued or motivated. And that’s where the trouble begins.

According to Gray, “Just as a man is fulfilled through working out the intricate details of solving a problem, a woman is fulfilled through talking about the details of her problems.” And these are hard lines.

It’s why those situational factors are so important in men. They are the red flags you seek. Research shows these situational factors like unemployment, financial or academic stress and relationship breakdown are reliably linked to suicide in men. It can be that simple. Failing to meet widely held cultural expectations can be lethal.

Men don’t talk about the details of their problems. Men solve problems. And men may see suicide as one of the problem-solving tools in their toolkit.

According to Stanford Children’s Health Center:

  • Girls are more likely to try to die by suicide than boys.
  • Boys are four times more likely to die from suicide than girls.
  • Guns are used in more than half of all youth suicides.
  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people ages 15 to 24.

#EndtheStigma

I really thought this generation was different. Not so. A 2016 study by the YMCA measured the prevalence of the mental health stigma in young people between the ages of 11-24.

  • Three quarters of young people (75 percent) believe that people experiencing difficulties with their mental health are treated negatively as a result of stigma.
  • More than one in three young people (38 percent) with mental health difficulties had felt the negative impact of stigma.
  • More than one in three young people (37 percent) who experience this stigma did so at least once a week.

Seeking care for our mental health is still frowned upon in the United States. We talk a good game. We create #endthestigma hashtags and such. And maybe we have made some strides in the last few years.

But our version of manhood does not include asking for help. It’s seen as weak.

This needs to change.

Spontaneity:

Men rarely let on that they’re thinking or planning on harming themselves. Studies from the New England Journal of Medicine suggest that anywhere from one-third to 80 percent of all suicide attempts are impulsive acts. Of those who made near-lethal suicide attempts, 24 percent decided to kill themselves less than five minutes before the attempt. Five minutes. Further, 70 percent made the decision within an hour of the attempt.

So with men we don’t typically get many emotional warning signs. Men simply don’t raise the alarms the same way that women do. We try to solve the problem on our own. And that impulsivity can be lethal.

The (sorta) Good News:

The good news, if there is any, is that people who are prevented from harming themselves often do not make a follow up attempt. A 1978 study of 515 people who were prevented from attempting suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971 found after more than 26 years 94 percent were still alive or had died of natural causes.

Overall, a recent review of 177 research studies around the world found that only 4 percent of people who survived intentionally hurting themselves went on to die by suicide within 10 years.

These studies speak to the power of intervention, clinical therapy and recovery.

The Root Cause:

About 20 percent of American young adults struggle with some kind of mental health disorder, most commonly depression or anxiety. Over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services.

One of my favorite authors is Richard E. Simmons, III. In his book, “The True Measure of a Man,” Simmons reveals man’s biggest weakness: fear of failure.

“When we let our imaginations run wild, we soon find that our thoughts become focused on all types of imagined repercussions and consequences. Such reckless imaginings based on unrealistic fears creates a false sense of the future that begins to appear so very real, almost inevitable.”

Simmons goes on to suggest that living with fear of failure robs us of joy and peace. And later kills hope.

Fear of failure is certainly one component. But smart folks suggest there are other causes of anxiety and depression in young men? I don’t know. But here’s a partial list of 28 possible contributing factors. You can pick out what you think the root cause might be. Your guess is as good as mine.

  1. The influence of social media (Insta, Spotify, Facebook, Snapchat, Tik-Tok, etc.)
  2. Bullying
  3. Fear of failure
  4. The legalization of marijuana
  5. Violence on TV, in video games and in movies
  6. Rampant use of vaping in teens
  7. The destruction of the nuclear family
  8. The power of suggestion
  9. Lack of faith in God
  10. Lack of church, mosque or synagogue attendance
  11. Antibiotics in our food
  12. Increased pressure on teens to perform at a level that isn’t healthy
  13. Helicopter parenting
  14. Porn
  15. Alcohol
  16. Peer pressure
  17. Family history of suicide and/or exposure to suicide
  18. Family history of mental illness
  19. Physical/sexual abuse
  20. Death of a parent
  21. Aggressive behavior/impulsivity
  22. Lack of social support/social isolation
  23. Culture of guns and violence
  24. Access to ways of harming oneself, like guns, knives, etc.
  25. Difficulties in dealing with sexual orientation
  26. Physical illness
  27. Family disruptions (divorce or problems with the law)
  28. Traumatic events

Warning Signs

There are some telltale warning signs according to the experts. However, these warning signs are almost laughable. These are also just basic teen/young adult behavioral changes that can be completely benign. That’s what makes all of this so difficult.

  • Noticeable changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Unexplained or unusually severe, violent or rebellious behavior
  • Withdrawal from family or friends
  • Sexual promiscuity, truancy and vandalism
  • Drastic personality change
  • Agitation, restlessness, distress or panicky behavior
  • Talking or writing about dying by suicide, even jokingly
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Doing worse in school

I don’t have the answers to this complex problem. All I know is that, like other societal problems we are facing, awareness is the first step towards change. So, together, let’s commit to spreading awareness of this epidemic. You can start by sharing this story with family and friends.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues, please call Katie Sundermeier at The Samaritan Counseling Center at (404) 228-7721. Or, you can call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

It’s time we end the stigma about mental health.