The stats are shocking, but behind the numbers are real men, with real, individual experiences, struggling and urgently needing our help. Here, writer and mental health advocate, Richard Taylor, pens a moving open letter, putting out the call for us all to think about how we can make a difference to the lives of others
I’ve been trying to write to you for a long time, but I’ve never been quite sure who I’m speaking to. Maybe I’ll have figured it out by the end of this letter, but while I’ve got your attention, I’d like to talk about the fragile and complex conversation regarding male suicide and men’s mental health (and yes, it’s still taboo, and it is still necessary to keep talking about it).
There have been gargantuan strides made with regards to addressing mental health in society. Every other office has a mental health first aider (OK, slight exaggeration, but run with me please), it’s brought up in conversation in pubs and on the telly, radio programmes talk about it, and celebrities have helped to bring the topic to a wider audience, and acted as role models to show us how important it is to talk about mental health, and be open and honest with each other.
Yet, in spite of this, 84 men die by suicide every week. Every two hours in the UK, a man takes his own life, affecting families, friends, and creating a ripple that will go on to devastate those who are left behind, leaving them weighed down with questions and heartache.
When my dad broke down in front of me in tears, racked with fear, what he said next would go on to shape the rest of my life and our relationship together.
“I can’t do this any more, Richard. I’m watching my son die in front of me and there’s nothing I can do to stop it, and I just can’t take it anymore. So if you’re gonna go, let’s go together. Because my life isn’t worth living without you.”
For context, at this point in my life I had effectively been bed-bound for nine months at the cruel, invisible hands of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I was dangerously underweight, my mental compulsions and rituals were omnipresent and oppressive, controlling every aspect of my behaviour and thoughts.
I had to be bathed with the help of my dad as I stood naked, bereft of any dignity, and I could only go to the toilet once a day – again with my dad’s help. If you’re reading this and wondering what form that help took, he held a carrier bag under me so I could go to the toilet, and then disposed of it for me. It made me feel feral and it stripped me of my humanity every day, but that is the nature of OCD – it cares not for how it makes you feel, or what it compels you to do. My life revolved around a 24-hour cycle of waiting to feel clean enough for all of the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviours to stop.
I was between the ages of 18 and 20 when all of this occurred, so from a male perspective, having to rely on someone to pretty much care for you in all aspects of your life felt overwhelming – especially when that person was so closely related. I had regressed to childhood, incapable of keeping myself alive and functioning.
Previously, OCD had prevented me from living an ordinary life and, at this time, I’d already been learning to alter my days according to the new set of rules that OCD forced me to live by. I was living a secret double-life behind closed doors that I tried desperately to keep hidden from everyone around me.
We all have the power as individuals to help shape what society looks like, and how it cares for us
For my dad, I can only imagine what he must have been experiencing; as a father watching his son fade away in front of his eyes, to speak those words, let alone think them. The desperation and hopelessness had to be excruciating. I’ve since spoken to him about what he was feeling, and he said that his only thought was not wanting me to die alone. He explained that afterwards, he felt guilty that he never thought about his mum, my mum or my future life, only that he did not want to see me suffering.
So what am I asking you to do, as a member of society, to help men like myself and many others? Listen to us. Hear us when we say we’re struggling, and don’t assume that we’ve got a load of mates who we can turn to. WhatsApp group chats aren’t the kind of places where mates discuss depression, suicide and other complex mental health topics, but why not? These spaces should be fertile ground for open, healthy and compassionate conversations for blokes to look out for each other.
Invariably, when you ask a guy how he’s feeling, he’ll fob you off with a casual: “I’m fine.” But don’t let him get away with it! Press him on it if you’re concerned, because nothing bad can come out of directly asking someone how they’re feeling.
If you’re in a group setting and notice someone acting differently, give them a nudge later on when there’s a bit of privacy. We hear and see all too often the gut-wrenching posts on Facebook and Instagram from guys who have lost a friend to suicide who regret not asking sooner.
Opportunities to have these kinds of conversations are on the rise as a direct result of campaigns from mental health charities and organisations targeting men specifically. A simple reminder that poor mental health isn’t a sign of weakness, and to admit that you’re not coping well is all it takes. From experience, I know most men are crying out for someone to talk to, but they feel like reaching out will make them a burden to friends and family.
So I go back to my original question; who is society?
Society is you, reading this right now. It’s me, writing about my personal experiences. Society is built on the conversations between us and the courage we have to challenge the norms that have been built on beliefs that no longer reflect the majority.
Society is those willing to bare their pain, grief and sorrow to the world, and invite others into those emotions. It is the people of all different cultures, creeds, races and religions, gender or age, sexual orientation or financial status. We all have the power as individuals to help shape what society looks like, and how it cares for us. I think that when it comes to the men in our lives, we need to hold on to the hope that we’ve not missed the boat, and tell them that we’re listening.