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Opinion: Men are talking, but are we listening?

Five times more men than women are dying by suicide in Ireland today – why isn’t more being done to help?

John Gormley

“MEN DON’T TALK face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder”.

Those were the words of Professor Barry Golding at the Second National Men’s Sheds conference in Australia where they drew a murmur of approval from the hundreds of attendees, eventually being adopted as the motto of the burgeoning and very popular international Men’s Shed Associations.

There’s a lot of truth to those words, and most men reading them will immediately understand their relevance. Today it’s more important than ever that the voices of men be heard on their own terms, especially when they feel as though there’s nobody listening.

And Irish men today do feel like their voices aren’t being heard. The most recent and indeed one of the very few surveys of men conducted by the National Office for Suicide Prevention tells us that almost three quarters of men believed that politicians and the government had little interest in the problems they faced as men, while a similar number agreed that the lot of the average man was getting worse.

Staggeringly high rates of male suicide 

Who could blame men for having a less than rosy outlook on how their concerns are treated when up until very recently little attention was being paid to the grim fact that men are taking their own lives at far higher rates than women, with a staggering five times as many male suicides as female in Ireland today, a stark reality which has been ignored by officialdom for decades.

In 2011, 458 Irish men of all ages took their own lives. In that same year 186 fatalities occurred on Irish roads. When you think about how much attention is lavished on road safety, yes, a reasonable observer could say that men are justified in feeling neglected by the great and good as well as by society itself.

A phrase you’ll often find in research, treatment recommendations, and outreach programmes in the field of suicide prevention is “toxic masculinity” or some variation thereof. This is the idea that men are too stoic, too macho to look for help, that masculinity and male identity itself is somehow the problem.

However that doesn’t just betray a disturbingly deep misunderstanding of men and masculinity, it’s flat-out wrong. The National Suicide Foundation tells us that in the year prior to death, 81% of the people involved had been in contact with their doctor or a mental health service.

Men do look for help, but the services available just aren’t listening to them when they speak on their own terms, and that’s something which needs to change.

Men are expected to solve their problems on their own

The motto of the Men’s Sheds resonates so strongly because it’s a far better description of the reality of masculinity than blithely handwaving it away as machismo. For better or for worse, when a man cries in modern society nobody comes running to dry his tears. Men are expected to solve their own problems or look for constructive help, but this same self-reliant responsibility turns sour when the perception arises that there’s no useful help to be had.

We need to talk in practical terms about practical answers to the problems men face, such as during divorce where suicide rates for men (not women) soar. Why is that?

Maybe it has something to do with 99% of Irish husbands losing their homes during divorces, or judges making child maintenance orders that leave men with below-subsistence levels of income, or, even worse, access to children being restricted to a couple of hours every fortnight, and even then often denied.

How many fathers have been transformed by our legal system into walking cash machines, driven away from their own children? I think most of us know someone in that position, just as it doesn’t take long to remember a man you knew who decided to end it all.

Listen to what men have to say in their own way

We could talk about debt or unemployment, we could talk about domestic violence against men, another huge problem nobody wants to mention, we could talk about a lot of things, but really what we need to do before anything else is to stop talking and listen.

Listen to what men have to say in their own way and then give them practical solutions and support networks while working towards improving the way men are not just seen, but the way they’re treated.

The time has come to have a conversation about why it took so long for the problem of male suicide to be recognised, why a lot more isn’t being done – in particular, by the government – and what that says about the way we look at our brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, and friends.

John Gormley is a father and husband with a deep interest in the issues that affect men because they are men. He first became involved with the mens movement three years ago, and is today acting as the spokesperson for the advocacy group Mens Human Rights Ireland. [www.menshumanrightsireland.org]

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John Gormley

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