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Male suicide

Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit probably aren’t on the cultural radar of the children and young people we work with. Kids today have probably never lost an hour to the majestic Midnight Organ Flight album or screamed along to ‘Keep yourself warm’. But in the last month this band has become vitally important to our work with young men.

Last month the body of the band’s lead singer, Scott Hutchinson, was found after he was reported missing, following numerous posts on social media that suggested he was struggling.

As tragic as Scott’s death is, it isn’t one that will have particularly resonated with those we work with. And maybe I’m only focusing on it because Frightened Rabbit are one of my favourite bands, but here’s the thing: we have to talk about Scott’s death because it’s indicative of one of the biggest threats facing this generation of young men. And yes, suicide is obviously an issue for young women as well, but 75 per cent of all UK suicides are male, and suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Clearly something is happening; something is affecting young men to a terrifying extent.

Sadly, but predictably, the issue has been used as a political football by just about everyone. Some blame ‘toxic masculinity’, which is corrupting young men and ultimately destroying them, while others claim all the talk of ‘toxic masculinity’ erodes young men’s sense of self-worth. Lots of effort is being poured into point-scoring rather than making a difference.

There is light, but there’s a tunnel to crawl through

The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) says that men and boys may be more vulnerable to taking their own lives because: 

  • They feel pressure to be winners and can more easily feel like the opposite.
  • They feel pressure to look strong and feel ashamed of showing any signs of weakness.
  • They feel pressure to appear in control of themselves and their lives at all times.

If these three factors are contributing to male suicide, surely our response must be to proactively combat them. But how? In a society where many men don’t feel like ‘winners’, perhaps because their hopes of a job, home ownership or stable relationship have vanished, how do we build up their self-worth? How do we combat the need for men to appear strong and create cultures where honesty and vulnerability are valued more highly than apparent ‘strength’, which prohibits us from talking about our feelings? How do we help young men gain control of their lives at a time when teenage hormones and brain development makes it more challenging than ever?

These three questions demand answers; more comprehensive answers than we can begin to address here. But what I would say is this: the Church absolutely has the potential to go some way in supporting young men as they deal with some of these big questions. Surely we are able to create and facilitate spaces where openness and fragility are virtues to be encouraged rather than character flaws to flee from. Surely we can give young men the tools to reassert control over themselves.

Part of this may just be acknowledging that life is hard, but that it gets easier; acknowledging that the teenage years are messy and complicated but we ourselves are evidence that it’s possible to get through it. An important thing to note is that this isn’t simply a youth work issue. These are questions and issues we need to be thinking about in our children’s ministry too. We need to lay the groundwork in terms of children’s value and worth. This should be done proactively before they’re hit by the onrush of hormones and brain chemistry, rather than struggling to react to it in our youth ministries.

While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes on Earth

There remains then the first factor: helping young men feel like winners rather than losers. How do we give them a sense of achievement or fulfilment? One thing about this generation is that there continues to be a strong heart of justice and determination to make a difference. Surely the Church needs to not only harness this passion for the causes we believe in, but to give young people the tools and resources to do this for themselves. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the first place young men turned when looking to start a social enterprise was the Church? If they’re passionate about wanting to make a difference we can help channel that into genuine change.

None of these things happen by accident. We have to be intentional about it. And obviously none of this is to suggest that we need to start pouring all our focus and resource into young men alone, but we have to be aware of the figures surrounding this issue and proactively seek to fight it. The stigma around suicidal thoughts and men’s mental health thrives on shame and silence; it’s time for us to start talking.

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