In early 1941, a man named Haakon joined up with the 35th Squadron of His Majesty’s Royal Air Force to fight the Nazis. He served as a tail gunner and flew on many missions including the bombing of Paris. In late 1941, Haakon was shot down over Hamburg, Germany. His face was scraped up and he was struck three times in the back of his neck by shell fragments. He would soon get promoted to 1st Lieutenant and serve the majority of the rest of the war in York, England teaching advanced tactics to members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Haakon returned to the United States, got a job as a mason, was married, and had two children. He would later suffer from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder from his time in the war. In 1966, just shy of his fiftieth birthday, he died by suicide.
I, a 30-year-old American man, didn’t know any of these details about my grandfather until recently when I stumbled on old newspapers online. We didn’t talk about Haakon when I was a child because my father, Haakon’s son, was ashamed of the way Haakon died and kept him a secret.
The stigma of Haakon’s death loomed over my father for his entire life, and in 2009 my father took his own life at the age of 60 while going through a divorce with my mother.
In 2011, after my father’s death, a falling out with my mother, and a bad break up, I nearly took my own life as well. Not wanting to die and knowing my two predecessors didn’t speak up, I finally opened up and got help.
Statistically speaking, people who have had suicides in their family are at greater risk to make a suicide attempt. I can’t help but think that if Haakon’s story hadn’t included his time in the Royal Air Force, then Douglas might not have died, and my story would look different as well. You can’t change the past but you can create your future, and so I wanted to go back to where it all began – the United Kingdom.
For years, I’ve been eager to get to the bottom of male suicide – not just an American thing or a British thing, but a problem worldwide. Statistically in the US and UK, men above 50 years of age have a high rate of suicide – roughly 75% of suicides in both the US and UK are male, and worldwide there is an average of one suicide every forty seconds. I wanted to know what we could do to prevent that. To do so I interviewed Dr. Max Mackay-James, a doctor based in the UK, who founded the Conscious Ageing Trust and Men Beyond 50.
Q1: Is suicide learned behaviour or is it truly preventable?
A1: It is preventable – there is nothing inevitable about suicide. Every suicide involves a choice, and in every case the choice can go either way. In any moment we can decide to kill ourselves, or we can choose to stay alive.
Every man or woman alive has more than likely had the thought, however fleeting, that in this moment, in this situation, he or she could choose to kill him or herself. That’s okay – it’s a thought that comes with simply being human. But we have a choice, and help and hope does exist in this world.
Whether you’re in crisis or if you want to help someone in crisis – it’s important to develop the feeling of being vulnerable, especially us men. Why? Because it allows us to feel empathy for others so we look out for each other more, but even more important it gives us compassion for ourselves. We men get into the habit of thinking we are invulnerable, and it’s simply not the case.
Q2: What is it about men aged 50+ that causes risk for suicide?
A2: The way men are brought up to believe what it takes to “be a man” may add to the risks. When traditional expectations of men about power and control no longer work in today’s society, intense feelings of shame, disgrace, and sense of personal failure can result in potentially self-destructive behaviour.
Loneliness and isolation can increase the risks of suicide. Research on male social networks shows that both 30+ and 50+ men may have fewer supportive relationships, and that (compared with women) men may lack skills and experience in coping emotionally.
Q3: How can we lend a hand to men aged 50+ in crisis of thinking of suicide?
A3: Simply remember to stay in touch with a feeling of vulnerability. Don’t judge, don’t panic, and don’t feel you have to be an expert. Being open to this feeling of vulnerability will give us a good chance to help somebody thinking seriously about suicide.
Since mental illness is so common in suicides, the “canary” warning sign is likely to be depression. So being able to recognise this (see signs of depression HERE), and letting that person talk especially in a time of deep unhappiness or distress can make all the difference. Giving our own emotional support and signposting somebody to get appropriate and timely professional help can and does help prevent suicides.
Helplines and support groups
Samaritans (08457 90 90 90)
A 24-hour service available every day of the year.
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) (0800 58 58 58)
A resource and helpline for young men who are feeling unhappy.
Silver Line (0800 4 70 80 90)
A helpline providing information, friendship and advice to older people