Movember has officially been upon us for over a week now, and many you have likely established a good base layer for your upper lip, or know someone who has. This month is about much more than moustaches, as most people know, but a dialogue about men’s health issues still needs to be jump started. Moustaches have a strange ironic currency in the age of the internet, and their presence, while as good a symbol as any, sometimes overshadows the real reasons that men are growing them every November.
Luckily, the Movember website takes its mission seriously and includes great links and information on men’s health. I assumed that most of the discussion revolved around prostate and testicular cancer screenings, but there is actually a really great section on mental health, addressing issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicide.
While the leading health issues facing men are heart disease and cancer, suicide isn’t far away, ranking seventh on the list of the ten things which kill us most. What’s so frustrating about suicide, though, is that it is the single most preventable kind of death there is. Unfortunately, ‘masculine‘ attitudes towards depression, mental illness, and life circumstances which act as co-occurring factors in suicide leave men with little hope or opportunity to seek help.
On average, men complete suicide over three times as often as women. Suicide in general has been on the rise recently, with states like Wyoming and Montana declaring the deplorable suicide rates in their states as health care emergencies. In 2010, the last year the Centers for Disease Control released statistics, 38,364 Americans died by suicide, and 79% of them were men.
The only hard evidence for why men complete more suicides than women is because men use more lethal means, such as firearms, whereas women often choose means with lower lethality. There is plenty of speculation, however, for why men kill themselves at such staggering rates. In short, masculinity is to blame, as many men, especially in the western states where the suicide rate is twice the national average, feel that the burdens of life are to be handled quietly and alone, and that if they cannot be overcome then one hasn’t been ‘man enough‘ to take care of things. Imagine the mental load that must be, to feel that you have failed at being who you should be at the most basic and primal level.
It is true, though, that attitudes towards mental health are changing, that being diagnosed with depression or another mental disorder does not carry the stigma that it used to. But even when men seek help for their mental health issues, they might not be aggressive enough with treating those issues. Sometimes that means that men are reluctant to take medications for their illnesses, and sometimes that means that men still don’t have an understanding of what mental health is.
If a man were to go to a doctor he’s never seen before for an ache in his lower back, and that doctor told him he had bladder cancer, there stands a good chance that the man will get a second opinion. If it is cancer, then the man will, with the guidance of his doctors, seek appropriate treatment. Let’s say it all works out, but that two years later the cancer is back. Most likely, the man will go back to the doctor, and again aggressively fight the disease, giving up in only the rarest of circumstances.
When it comes to mental health, however, there is a stark contrast in the pursuit of treatment. A mental health professional is sought, and perhaps medication and therapy begin together. Maybe the medication doesn’t seem to help, or the therapist isn’t a good fit. Few men will actively seek another therapist, or be patient with drug regimens, or abstain from alcohol or other risk factors the way they would if their diagnosis were cancer instead of depression. And if everything did work out, and they were happy and didn’t think about suicide at all, but then two years later those thoughts came creeping back, those men are not as likely to actively seek help again the way someone with a more ‘physical‘ disease would.
That needs to change. Men need to stop killing themselves. Men need to take the initiative to change our gender’s attitudes towards mental health and suicide. Men need to ‘man up‘ not by ignoring these issues and plugging along stoically, but by addressing them honestly.
So as you stroke your moustaches this month, men, or as you kiss those furred lips you love, ladies, remember the toll suicide takes on men, and do your best to address it honestly and aggressively. Let’s keep our fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews, husbands, and selves alive.