Why another young man took his life

by ROBERT CHESSHYRE, Evening Standard

The death of Charles Acheson-Gray was flagged; Neil Firth's came out of a clear blue sky. But the legacies were the same - the loss of loved and talented sons. Their deaths were only two in what is fast becoming a national calamity.

In the past 30 years, suicide among men aged between 15 and 34 has almost doubled, making them by far the fastest growing group of people who take their own lives.

In 1999, 1,552 young men killed themselves, over a quarter of the total suicide figure, and a rate four times higher than that for young women. After accidents, suicide is the principal cause of young male deaths.

I talked to several bereaved families. Apart from the dreadful grief - "He couldn't stay, even for us," said one mother, "that's what really hurt" - what they had in common was the discovery that there is neither enough p u blic education about depression nor enough expertise to help young men at risk; and that there remains, as Charles Acheson-Gray feared, a huge stigma about it in the workplace and even among friends.

One counsellor told of a patient who broke down and cried at work. "He got hell, no sympathy whatsoever. His colleagues saw him as weak and not being able to cope. He was even laughed at. That could well have driven him to suicide.î

The mother of a student w ho took his own life said: "To die needlessly is such a tragedy. The numbers should make it a national emergency." Dr Ian Banks,chairman of the Men's Health Forum, said: "Society has m o re or less turned a blind eye to suicides among young men. If a disease came down to earth and devoured this number of young men, there w ould be an outcry."

We are millennia aw ay fro m the era of hunter-gatherers, but the notion thatareal man should be strong and macho persists in atavistic attitudes and in popular culture. Even sensitive "new men" find it hard to talk about their ow n problems, or to question and cherish friends about whom they might be worried.

A recent Samaritans' opinion poll found that three-quarters of the population believe men don't get the same emotional support as w omen, and that two-thirds of men believe women have gained influence while they have lost it. The poll also found that nearly three-quarters of men are more confused about their role than they were 10 years ago, and that almost everyone thinks men face stigma when talking about their emotions.

Young men are supposed to be able to "sort themselves out", to "pull themselves together", "show a stiff upper lip". It doesn't do to lose face, to show weakness.

A mother who was worried about her 21-year-old son suggested he see a doctor. "What's the point?" he replied. "He'll only give me pills." She let it go. The next day he took her car and gassed himself. She told me: "He was over 6ft tall, far bigger than me. I thought, 'You can't drag them.' But how I now wish I had."

It was revealing when talking to parents to find that in most families, though by no means in all,it was the mother rather than the father who spoke to me. In one family w here both spoke, the mother was more forthcoming than the father.

Young women have over-taken and now out-perform young men at school, at university and in many w orkplaces. Traditional "male" jobs which relied on muscle have either vanished or been dow n graded by m e chanisation.

D avid Wilkins, who works in health promotion in Dorset where a project targeting young men is being pioneered, said: "Social changes have marginalised young men, making them less sure of their roles. They are less certain that they are going to be a breadwinner or even needed as a father. But men haven't developed their emotional coping mechanisms to deal with that."

The easy escape is into "laddishness", and the temporary amnesia that comes from being out on the beer with your mates or hollering atafootball match.

M r Wilkins engaged a drama group to run a work -shop on depression for boys in their mid-teens. They had to write stories about young men who were depressed, and suggest ways they might cope. "All the stories involved not confronting the problem, but escaping in some way - getting drunk, taking drugs, shooting someone," he said. "If you did a similar exercise with girls, their stories would be about getting help, not running aw ay."

Easy-to-get street drugs increase emotional vulnerability, as does heavy drinking. When comparing a suicidal group of young people with a non-suicidal g roup, the Samaritans found that four times as many in the suicidal group smoked, three times as m a ny drank and 10 times as m a ny took illegal drugs. Marjorie Wallace, director of the mental health charity Sane, said: "Drugs definitely make people more prone to suicide.î

The highest rate of young male suicide is among the poorest. Proportionately,four times as many young men in social class five (the bottom) kill themselves as those in social class one. One GP said: "There is a high association of suicide with unemployed young men. They are on a slippery slope - losing jobs, relationships, any sense of a w orthwhile future."

T he real number of "suicides" may in fact be higher than recorded, since some reckless acts like joyriding show such disregard for safety that they are tantamount to suicide.

T he toll is also mounting among the middle classes. One father said: "We think we are in control and can handle things, but once someone gets into this state, all the love and attention in the world doesn't change or help anything. If people like us - well-connected, well-informed, well-everything - can't figure out what to do, how can someone who doesn't have our connections."

Lack of self-esteem, from which most people who are depressed suffer, is no respecter of persons. Charles Acheson-Gray and Neil Firth

were middle-class with supportive families. They were both talented with, on the face of it,everything to live for.

Young men choose violent, irretrievable ways to kill themselves. They jump fro m tow er blocks; throw themselves under trains; fix hoses to car exhaust pipes; hang themselves. Young women in distress are far more likely to take an overdose or cut their wrists. But even self-harm thatfalls short of sui -cide is becoming more violent - severe burns, deep flesh wounds - "a scream, rather than a cryî for help, said Ms Wallace.

T he greater the emotional pain, the greater the self-inflicted injury. In 1998, an estimated 160,000 people w ere admitted to casualty departments for treatment for self-har m. Of these, 24,000 were teenagers, which means, say the Samaritans, that three young people harm themselves every hour. Inevitably there will be "mistakesî, but as the self-harm statistics climb, so will "successfulî suicides. One mother who campaigns on the issue said: "Many of these young men set targets that are difficult to achieve and then can't handle the dis -appointment. Life wasn't going right for them.î

T he actor Richard Todd's son, Seamus, who took his life in 1997, left a note in w hich he wrote that he couldn't cope, and couldn't cope with not being able to cope. Another father said: "If m y son had left a note, thatis w hat he would have said.î

Parents I spoke to had felt utterly in the dark. They did not recognise danger signals and did not know where to turn or what advice to follow. T hey were cut off by medical "confidentialityî. After their sons' deaths, they read every -thing they could on suicide. T oo late, they became experts. Painful though they found it, they talked because, above everything, they are determined to save others from the hell they endured.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now