Like many of you, I was saddened when I learned of Robin Williams’ suicide this week. I have such fond memories of being entertained by his spectacular wit and humor. And like too many of you, the news brought back memories of several times in my life when I’ve lost friends and acquaintances to suicide. Just this past month, while attending my 20th high school reunion, I learned that several of my former classmates had taken their lives in the past 10 years.
The statistics about suicide are sobering, especially for men. Research from the World Health Organization indicates that although the incidence of depression is higher among women, men commit suicide more often than women in nearly every country worldwide. An estimated one million people take their lives each year – yet even one life lost to suicide is too many.
Thankfully, you and I have escaped the terrible, dark undertow of suicide – we’re still here. So it is for us, the living, that I’m writing today.
Life is Precious
While the factors that can lead to suicide are many and varied, each of us can reach out and make a difference in the lives of those around us. Even if we don’t have the power to change everything for someone in pain, our care and compassion matters. As Neal Maxwell once stated, “Small lights have a way of being seen in a dark world.”
I know this is true through my own experience; there was a time when I was in my teens that I considered taking my own life. A friend of mine in high school noticed my deep struggle, and then courageously reached out to me, listened to me, and cared. A few others soon joined in to offer support. This led to getting additional help that opened the door to discovering hope, healing, and many good reasons to live. I owe so much – decades of joy, friendship, growth, and connection – to the courage and kindness of those friends. And for the last 13 years I’ve had the honor of helping others find hope and healing when faced with their own deep struggles.
Isolation & Shame: Heightened Risk Factors for Men
Social isolation from friends, family, and colleagues is a key factor in most suicides. In our society, men are often taught a very destructive “man code” that has one major rule: “Don’t be weak.” This belief can create an impossible dilemma for men (or women) who buy-in to it, especially when feeling down or needing help is equated with weakness. Life is hard. We do not do well in isolation. Yet reaching out for help, or admitting that you’re struggling (especially with emotions or relationships) can invoke the demon of shame for men. The author Pat Conroy expressed it well:
“American men are allotted just as many tears as American women. But because we are forbidden to shed them, we die long before women do, with our hearts exploding or our blood pressure rising or our livers eaten away by alcohol because that lake of grief inside us has no outlet. We, men, die because our faces were not watered enough.”
So, my brothers (and friends of men), this is my message: Getting help makes us stronger, not weaker. We are always stronger together. We are not designed (either by evolution or by God) to do this alone. We are happier together. We are more resilient together. We are more capable of courage and achievement and joy together. Why the hell try to do it alone!
Helpful Resources for Helping Men (or others who struggle)
If you are struggling, reach out for help. If you know someone who is getting swamped in despair or hopelessness, reach out to them. Asking direct questions in a kind way does not push people toward suicide. It often brings the beginning of relief. Until the very moment of taking lethal action, most people who think about suicide remain ambivalent, meaning that there is at least a small part of them that wants to live, if only they can find a way for some of their pain to subside. Know that suicidal feelings and thoughts are treatable, and that people can move through times of crisis to discover great meaning and joy – but no one can make that journey alone.
- If you or someone you know is at imminent risk of suicide, by all means reach out for help. Call 911, or go to the nearest hospital.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline; you’ll be connected with trained crisis counselors in your area: 1-800-273-8255
- Educate yourself at http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org: Learn about risk factors and warning signs for suicide. Learn how to develop a safety plan when someone is at risk.
- It can be hard to know what to say when someone you love is having a rough time. Sending a Lifeline E-card is a great way to show someone you care and let them know that hope is available. You can send a card for sympathy over a death or a loss of relationship, to offer emotional support, or to simply tell someone you’re thinking of them.
- Mantherapy.org This is one of my favorite sites for men who may be struggling with depression or other life challenges. Check out the “18 point Head Inspection“, and share it with your network on Facebook.
If we save even one life by reaching out, it will be worth all of our efforts. Let’s do this together.