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Why We Need To Talk About Young Men & Suicide

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Photographed by McKinley Law.
When you think of a loved one that’s no longer with you, chances are, it’s bittersweet: You’ll think of them fondly, even if it’s tinged with sadness.

In my case, when I think of LJ, my best guy friend of two years, who committed suicide four years ago, I skip past the sadness and go straight to anger.

It wasn’t always like this: When I first learned that LJ had taken his own life, the word "devastated" couldn’t quite encompass my grief. It was as if someone had suddenly stuck their finger on the "pause" button of my life, while everyone else’s was still on "play".

A million thoughts raced through my mind that November morning, after hearing the news, but the one I couldn’t wrap my head around was 'why'? He was happy – or at least he seemed to be; what I didn't know was that LJ had been secretly struggling with depression since school. Or that each day marked a fresh new battle until he decided that battling it just wasn’t worth it anymore.

And I didn’t know until later that how LJ died certainly wasn’t an isolated incident: Someone’s friend, brother, boyfriend or husband takes their life every two hours in the UK. That's equivalent to 12 men every day, according to male suicide prevention charity, CALM.

Worse still, I couldn’t quite shift the niggling guilt that I'd had some part to play in all this. I was the closest to LJ, I’d spent more time with him than anyone else in the months and weeks before he died. Surely I should have noticed something? I couldn’t help but feel that he might still be alive if I had, something that still plagues me today. So I started spending countless hours hunting for clues, replaying old conversations in case anything stuck out. At my most desperate, I resorted to trawling through every single Facebook photo he had, desperately scanning his face for any tell-tale signs.

It didn’t help that Sheffield, the city I’d met him in, was seeped with memories of him. Any bus journey I took, I’d crane my neck looking for him, half-expecting to see him strolling down the street, before being hit with a tsunami of sadness when I realised it wasn’t him. On days like that, I half-wished he’d taken me with him, but pretty soon, the guilt started giving way for an unrelenting anger towards him and it’s stayed there ever since.

It’s hard to shake off just how angry I am that LJ has joined the others - been reduced to a nameless, faceless stat rather than the LJ I knew, the one who I’d relive every drunken antic with the morning after the night before; the one who’d bail me out in an emergency come 4 am; the one who refused to make up excuses as to why some guy didn’t call.

I’m also angry that our old friendship group fell apart after we took turns blaming each other. There were no direct accusations but we all silently felt that one person or another was responsible. After a while, I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as them. We were free to walk around or make plans for the future whilst LJ was stuck in a coffin. Their Instagram accounts only serve as a stark reminder of all the things he’ll never get a chance to experience; graduating, his first job, even getting engaged. It felt wrong somehow that everyone got to move on when he’s stuck in time and never made it past 21. Why did they get to have a future? Why did I?

This isn’t an issue which affects ‘other people’ or one that can be solely reasoned to mental health issues. Suicide is something many men will consider should their life circumstances change.

Jane Powell, CEO of CALM
But most of all, I’m angry that suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 45 and so little is being done to address it. As Jane Powell, CEO of CALM says: “This isn’t an issue which affects ‘other people’ or one that can be solely reasoned to mental health issues. Suicide is something many men will consider should their life circumstances change.”

It’s devastating that LJ felt forced into bottling it up, that he couldn’t share how he really felt for fear of looking less of a man that taking his own life seemed easier. “Young men die proportionately more than young women because of macho attitudes that seeking help suggests they are weak,” according to Professor Colin Pritchard of Bournemouth University, an international leading figure in suicide studies.

No wonder then that 41% of men who’ve considered taking their own lives never spoke to anyone about their feelings. Louis Collenette, a 25 year old London-based filmmaker was one of them: “When suicide seemed like my only option, I felt desperate and alone; I was an island. What I needed to do was to ask for help, but something held me back. Looking back on it now it seems clear to me that my own gut feelings about masculinity – or lack thereof – was a huge factor. I felt that telling people I was struggling would castrate me.”

It’s not just tragic, it’s completely preventable. While it’s heart-warming that Prince William is helping to raise much-needed awareness of the issue and urging men to open up, it takes more than a royal figure to combat this. We need a complete culture change that doesn’t force men into "manning up" and stop them from seeking support.

On the good days, I’ll think of me and LJ at our best: bleary-eyed on any of the anonymous vomit stained floors dotted around Sheffield drinking spots, him talking me out of drunk-texting and me roping him into drinking more. Or him delivering his memorable one-liners about any one of our friends. On the bad days, I’ll reach for my phone forgetting that he’s not just a phone call away.

Today, I’m trying to make peace with LJ’s death, even though every year that passes marks more time that I didn’t know him than when I did. I’ve started to forgive him for my inability to get close to people as I’m convinced they’ll suddenly die, meaning it’s easier not to bother with them in the first place. And I’ve started to forgive that everyone else has seemed to move on with their lives seamlessly. But the fact that some men right now might be considering taking their own lives, and that 12 of them will actually go through with it today? That I can't forgive.

If you are thinking about suicide, or you think someone close to you might be, you can find useful resources and helplines here.

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, find out more here.
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