It’s an awful truth that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Australian men. Over 2,000 men take their own lives annually, a figure that’s almost double the road toll in 2014. 

It’s bleak as all hell but, like any conversation around mental health, it gets better. New research by the Black Dog Institute has identified, for the first time, the consistent risk factors in male suicide, which equates to 80% of all suicides in Australia. They are:

  • A period of disrupted or depressed mood 
  • Unhelpful conceptions of masculinity – the ‘tough Aussie bloke’ stereotype in particular
  • Social isolation 
  • At least one personal stressor, like unemployment or relationship breakdown.

Researchers conducted interviews and focus groups with 35 men who had survived suicide attempts, alongside forty-seven family and friends of male suicide survivors.

“It appears that some of the stereotypes are true,” said study leader and Associate Professor Judy Proudfoot. “Many Australian men are not good at dealing with poor mental health and unfortunately this tips them into a downward spiral of hopelessness, poor decision-making and poor resilience to day-to-day life stresses.”

The study highlights just how different men are from women when it comes to dealing with mental health issues.

It found that men at risk of suicide tend to systematically misinterpret changes in their behaviour and thinking. They don’t link up their externalised behaviours, mood, and increasing risk of suicidality, until it’s too late.

“It’s like you’re wrestling with it, and it’s not just for a day … it can build up for months, to the point where it torments you and there is almost, at times, no rest, this constant being on my mind,” said an unnamed 40-year-old male participant. “So once I get [to the point of considering suicide], I’ve pretty well made up my mind that there’s no help.”

The typical ‘toughen up, mate’ mentality is a huge blocking factor in seeking help, which leads to isolation in men, which leads to increasing risk of suicide. Excessive displays of masculine behaviour is typical and aggression can often be overlooked as a symptom of depression. Turning to drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms is also common.

(FYI the study has been made public, if you’re down for a read.) 

So what can be done to help prevent suicide in men? 

It’s important to remember that acute suicidality is a temporary state, but this is when someone is at high risk of suicide.

“Anything can be a trigger,” says lead researched and clinical psychologist Dr Michael Player. “It’s never a big thing that tips someone over. It might be ‘I can’t pay my rent’, or ‘I lost my job’. When you look at it in the scheme of things – that’s disappointing, but it’s not something to lose your life over.”

People might have suicidal thoughts over long periods of time and not make an attempt (this is where the contributing factors come in). It’s when they reach an acutely suicidal state that “you have to take the bull by the horns.”

This is where distraction is key, says Dr Player.

For young people, high adrenaline activities are a great source of distraction. He referred to one family who would take their 17 / 18 year old go-karting when he became acutely suicidal. It would “totally blast everything out of their brain other than that moment of joy,” said a 48-year-old female focus group participant.

At times of acute suicidality, it is also vital to remove means of men harming themselves and to stay by their side. Involuntary admissions to mental health facilities may also be a measure.

Dr Player provided further steps to take, which were published in the ABC:

  • To interrupt a spiralling mood in yourself for me: male bonding activities like camping and fishing, spontaneous physical activities, and volunteer work.
  • To interrupt a spiralling mood for your loved one: organising activities to get men ‘out of their head’, give men positive feedback about their self worth, increase their social connectedness, and normalise distress.
  • For friends and family of men at risk: set small achievable goals, turning up for a visit, encourage professional help, building a vocabulary for men to talk about their feelings

BTW, here’s a post we wrote last year on how to talk to someone with depression and spot its seven signs.

The study also identifies specific measures in times of acute suicidality in men:
Distraction. A friend or family member keeping him distracted, even for an hour or two, is crucial in providing space so he cannot plan the event.

“A mate of mine needed a lift to the airport,” said a 28-year-old participant. “And I was like, I’ve got to do that, he’s my mate. And for two days I didn’t even think about [suicide].”

Seeking professional help.
While the study found that large numbers of participants had unsatisfactory experiences with health services, the groups both agreed that they played vital roles in various stages.

The most important thing you can do is let your GP know you aren’t feeling okay. They’ll provide you with a mental health plan, and recommend a psychologist or counsellor. If you are uncomfortable speaking to your GP or don’t think they’re equipped to deal with mental health, Beyond Blue has a list of health professionals that specialise.

Have regular contact with respected people.
Men reported benefiting from regular contact with someone they could discuss problems with. 

“Not being judgemental, being honest and open and calling it what it is helps,” clinical psychologist Dr Player told the ABC. “Just being direct and often opening the space for a male to talk will be enough to illicit a positive response.”

Supporting this finding is the fact that 92% of participants reported an improved mood after taking part. 

The $100,000 study was funded by donations to Beyond Blue from the Movember Foundation, a global initiative to raise funds and awareness of men’s mental health. Now in it’s 12th year, we’ve all probably grown a ‘stache / donated to somebody at some point, but it’s great to see the results of what those dollars can achieve.

Paul Villanti, Executive Director of Programs at the Movember Foundation, said the research also highlighted the importance of maintaining social connections that can help men live happier and healthier lives.

“This research found that physical activity, having a healthy diet, engaging in enjoyable activities and keeping up with family and friends are some important factors that contribute towards men staying mentally healthy.”

Fighting the stigma around mental health in men is crucial in reducing suicide rates. And in good news, this is already happening.

Former Australian soldier Aaron Grey runs the Australian Veterans Suicide Register, a website in a similar vein to Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women, which quantifies the Australian veterans who have committed suicide after returning from service and aims to raise awareness and reduce stigma.

Beyond Blue has also set up the STRIDE Project (Stigma Reduction Interventions: Digital Environments). They’re running six different projects looking at how digital tools and environments can be used to reduce stigma associated with mental health and suicide.

You’ve probably heard it a million times before, but here it is again: it gets better.

If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, give one of these guys a buzz: Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week), Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

If you’d like to learn more about mental illness and how to seek help, visit Beyond BlueBlack Dog Institute, or Headspace.

Photo: David McNew via Getty Images