‘Suicide is a wholly preventable death – no one is born wanting to die. If these deaths are preventable, then an urgent, regular conversation needs to happen about how we can effectively tackle this’ Poorna Bell, award-winning journalist, author and mental health campaigner
It has been 1,159 days since my husband Rob died by suicide, and in that time, there is not a day when I don’t think about him, or wish that things hadn’t been different. Since he has passed, as inconceivable as it is, another 13,908 men have died in the same way.
There is nothing about that number that is remotely acceptable. Suicide in men, as most of us know by now, is the leading cause of death among men under 45. That number should feel horrifying because it is horrifying.
Part of my work is to raise awareness around suicide in order to create relief for all of the families left behind – very often it is a taboo death that locks mourners into silence. But the biggest part of my work is raising awareness and creating conversations around men’s mental health and suicide prevention so we can get that number down.
At first when Rob passed away, I maintained that perhaps suicide was a sign that things had become terminal for him, in the manner of cancer or heart disease. But I have since changed my view. Suicide is a wholly preventable death – no one is born wanting to die. If these deaths are preventable, then an urgent, regular conversation needs to happen about how we can effectively tackle this.
Let us not pretend it is not a gendered death when, since the Office of National Statistics began recording suicide deaths in 1981, more men have died than women. And while every female death to suicide is a tragedy and should be mourned, female suicide rates have halved while male suicide rates have barely budged.
When we are looking at a type of death that is so complicated and interwoven with different variables and factors, there is no quick fix. But if we can start identifying the problem and its root causes, that then leads us to methods of prevention.
When discussing prevention I must stress that it’s not just when it becomes acute. To me, that’s when we are merely fire-fighting. Prevention starts early and must require a multi-faceted approach, whether that is addressing the current templates of masculinity, how to bring up our boys and adequate coping mechanisms.
It also includes removing stigma so that mental health is an arena men feel comfortable talking about and therefore engaging with services when they are not feeling well, as well as addressing what fundamentally needs to change in terms of how we are dealing with acute cases, and what the blockers are.
After Rob died, I wrote a book called Chase The Rainbow that aimed to chart our journey. Rob also suffered from depression and an addiction to opiates, but I wanted to help destigmatise these two conditions by explaining what life was like for us. In addition, I wanted to chart the first-hand experience we had with the mental health provisions and services in the UK and, beyond that, illustrate how problematic societal stigma was, in that it made us more isolated and less able to get help.
There is also chapter in my book that specifically addresses how I believed some of the expectations of being a man prevented Rob from properly accessing help. I remember Rob once saying to me: “We’re expected to man up, suffer in silence and just get on with it. How did that ever work for our fathers’ generation?”
I’ve since had many letters from mothers of boys who have said that chapter has helped them understand a bit better, and from women who have read that chapter to their partners, which kick-started a conversation within their relationship around pressures and expectations. Trust me when I say: people desperately want to have this conversation in a judgement-free and solutions-based environment.
In our men’s mental health and suicide prevention talk (Wednesday 5 September, 10am) at NHS Expo, we are aiming to do just that. But not just talk: identify the quickest areas for change and then outline what can be done in the long-term to ensure that number keeps significantly decreasing. By the end of this year, that number will have gone up to include another 1,800 men lost to suicide. This isn’t new, this has been happening for decades. It has to stop.