(Confronting Content Ahead)
A young man in the inner circle of one of my work colleagues died earlier this year. I didn’t know him, have few details, but the devastation written on my work mate’s face said it all. And the details I do know are telling:
He suffered from depression.
But he was going really well.
And then he died…unexpectedly…by suicide.
Tragically, the unexpected element in this scenario is such a common postscript to male suicide it could almost be described as a hallmark. A third of all deaths in young men are due to suicide. As the mother of a son this statistic makes me want to stick my fingers in my ears and hide behind these words:
‘That would never happen to us.’
But I know enough to know that sticking one’s head in the sand just adds to the risk. Unfortunately, there will always be a percentage of unpreventable suicides, but even reducing the statistics would be some comfort. So how do we do that?
Maybe a starting point is to recognise the emotional differences between girls and boys, and how we react to those differences. I haven’t researched this scientifically, and every family is different – but here’s what I’ve noticed in mine:
My daughter and I talk a lot. Ad nauseum. I know her emotional barometer almost as well as my own. My son is easy-going, unless he’s tired and/or hangry. He demonstrates his affection physically with a hug or wanting a tickle. Whereas his sister demonstrates it by saying: ‘I love you’.
A lot of my son’s verbal output revolves around Pokemon Go and food. Because of this it can be easy to dismiss what is going on in his head as uncomplicated. I do it sometimes. Life gets busy and he seems ok. But it’s a mistake, because when I give him the right time and space he shows me he has plenty of other thoughts, and that his worries and fears are often no different to his sister’s, but the way he processes them is.
Without wanting to stereotype, or discount individual personality differences, my perception is that while our daughters often wear their emotions on the outside, our sons’ emotional barometers are internal organs. Sometimes we have no idea where they are at until the pressure is at exploding point. In little boys that might be a meltdown, or a quiet sadness. It might be something that can be soothed with a cuddle and a casual chat about what’s bothering them.
But what about bigger boys? As tweens, teens, and young men they don’t sit on their mum’s lap and cry when their thoughts don’t make sense. They tend to stay quiet. Sometimes too quiet.
There are no simple solutions. But we can start by teaching our little boys how to communicate emotional pain long before they grow into young men. And if they do give us hints that all is not right in their world we should take serious notice. Just because they might not express their emotions as noisily as their sisters doesn’t mean our response to their distress should be any less urgent.
While we work towards getting better public mental health services, there are things we can do for our boys and young men. We have to educate them about the link between substance abuse and mental illness, particularly if there is a history of mental illness in the family. And if our young man has a mental illness with depressive or delusional symptoms we must learn to sit with the following discomfort:
Talking about suicide, is much safer than silence.
We need to eradicate stigma! Suicidality is so often a symptom of a mental illness. Stigma blocks the dissemination of information about how such illness can be successfully managed. Parents must understand that it doesn’t matter how much you love and support your child, if that child is sick – whether it’s cancer or a mental illness – you do not have the professional knowledge, skills, or resources to save that child on your own.
Private Health insurance often gives you better choices, but if that’s not an option there are places to go for help. For 12-25 year olds Headspace https://headspace.org.au/ is a good starting point. Your GP can provide psychology and psychiatry referrals. But perhaps one of the most important things you can do for your son (or any other young man in your life) is to be vigilant in the face of his silence.
The image accompanying this post is a favourite of my son. He’s less than a week old. Three generations of hands cradle him – my mother’s, mine, and my daughter’s.
Things have changed since it was taken. These days my son can hold up his own head, but he still needs his family to show him how to open up, not shut down when he’s feeling vulnerable. We need to show him every, single day that we support his emotional health, and that even when he is much taller, hairier, and physically stronger than us, we will continue to have his back.
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