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How many sons and brothers must we lose to suicide before we act?

Ireland has exceptionally high rates of male suicide, but it’s being met with a wall of silence.

John Connell

A FEW WEEKS ago I wrote an article on social media about my own battle as a young man with depression. What followed evidenced the power of media and even though I am a journalist by trade, the pace and reaction surprised even me.

The article which was featured on TheJournal.ie, led to my appearance on Ryan Tubridy’s 2fm radio show. Within a few days of my speaking about the journey, a listener wrote in to say that he had been on his way to kill himself that morning but decided to not take his life after hearing my story.

That experience was one of the greatest moments of my life. I cried tears of joy for – in a way – a point had been lent to my own suffering, and there was a thought of the spiritual too, the small acts and chains that bind us all to one another.

Sadly however, the next week another young man had taken his life – this time in a river not far from my family home.

Ireland has one of the highest rates of male suicide in the world

Right now Ireland is in a crisis, a crisis of masculinity. We have one of the highest rates of male suicide in the world and yet there is no definitive campaign to try and save these vulnerable men and – most importantly – no national conversation. It is, rather, a quiet shame that permeates every village and town in the country. Each week we have, on average, ten suicides in this nation and eight of them are men.

It is a sobering statistic. How many sons and brothers are we losing in this epidemic, how many are caught up in the quiet shame of it all? Afraid to speak about their own suffering, and afraid to listen to that of others.

Personally, I have spent many years wondering when I would become a man. And yet what is a man? He is surely not some unemotional, hard-drinking action hero and yet I know so many ‘men’ who hold up that unrealistic expectation as the be-all.

We have a crisis of masculinity in that we have a generation of males, equipped with all the emotions to make them men and yet our society has managed to make them repress so much of this.

It is darkest before the dawn

Ireland has a proud history, a wonderful plethora of talented sportsmen, musicians, writers and peacekeepers. If we were to engage our own men in the way that our brave soldiers go and maintain peace lines in conflict regions we might have fewer suicides.

Because the simple fact is, the system we have isn’t working. An average of 500 suicides each year and 80% male. Conor Cusack, Bressie and many other mental health campaigners have made the remark if this epidemic were fatalities on our roads we would be in uproar, but when it is the dark shadow of mental illness we have become a stoic people. I say this because the reality is we as a society know – we know on some level that we are losing this many people each week, each month, each year.

The problems that are taking these young men, no matter how great they seem, are not forever. Life does and will get better. It is a cliché but clichés hold truth; it is darkest before the dawn and though that dawn may be weeks or months away, our men need to know this.

‘Man up and open up’

A few weeks ago, a counselor friend and I sat at Connolly train station in Dublin. We had enjoyed my return to real life, and, as we laughed about my dark days our thoughts, turned to those who had not been so fortunate, those who had not made it through to the other side. And we struck upon an idea; ‘Man up and open up’. It was simple and yet said so much. For it is through talking and compassionately listening that real men are made.

Opening up is not an act of vulnerability or weakness, it is an act of strength and power, it is how real relationships are made, how families are kept together and, ultimately, how lives are saved.

As a society we need to empower our men, to let them know that it is OK to be emotional, that it is normal to feel and grieve and most importantly, to talk.

Even our most powerful men have moments of doubt and weakness

I am reminded of our current Irish rugby team. As a unit the men work together, share and struggle with each other, there are no moments of glorying any more for the men are united in a way we haven’t seen before, a true team, where each man knows the strengths and weakness of his fellows. And do we not win, do we not put the fear into other nations now with this more self-aware team of warriors?

Ireland lacks a national strategy on suicide prevention. It is that simple. Groups such as Aware and the Samaritans are doing the best they can, but as volunteers have said on numerous occasions ‘things are very bad right now – we are seeing more and more young people suffering with depression and mental health issues.’

Perhaps if you will allow the analogy we were to approach our society, our national strategy on suicide prevention like our rugby team, a nation of self-aware men, who can be warriors of the self.

‘Man up and open’ up is a simple slogan but if combined with the right people and groups could we not try to reduce our appalling death toll? Perhaps we need to look to the Mens’ Sheds model and our sporting bodies to get behind this movement. To have mental health ambassadors, to have warriors of the self such as Conor McGregor and Paul O Connell gracing billboards saying it is OK not to be OK. That even our most powerful men have moments of doubt, of weakness, and that it makes them all the more a man to have these moments and worries and to talk about them.

What is a man? He is a powerful force with all the dark and light that makes him human

We need to remove the shame around mental health and suicide. We need to target rural Ireland where the majority of suicides are happening and where the lack of services is most pronounced. Kathleen Lynch is our Minister for Mental Health and yet we do not see her on our screens enough. The issue, the emergency is being dealt with in an Irish fashion as a nation of talkers we are strangely quiet about this epidemic.

It is time to man up and open up. And hopefully we can begin to reconcile with ourselves, because this is more important than a banking crisis, than a peace movement in the north, than creating another few jobs. If we have no young men left, then what is it all for?

Let’s get the conversation happening again. It is darkest before the dawn, and we are in the dark night of the soul. Let’s tell our young men that the light is coming before it is all too late, before any more lives and families are broken forever. Because we can no longer sit by and watch another man be pulled from the local river, be cut out from the wreck of a single car accident, or be taken down from some lonely tree in the middle of a forest.

What is a man? He is a powerful force with all the dark and light that makes him human and the sooner we know this, accept this and urge those suffering to get help, the sooner this crisis will be met head on. It is time to stand up and say we care, we are here and we need to mind our men. We need money, we need a strategy, and we need to talk.

John Connell is an author, producer and journalist. Born in county Longford he comes from a farming family.

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John Connell

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