Last year, Gem Carlier’s loved and loving boyfriend took his own life. He’s not the only one: male suicide rates are at a 15-year-high and toxic masculinity is largely to blame.
2am, Sunday 13th April 2014: a phone call from West Yorkshire police. I’d just got my daughter, Holly, to sleep after 24 hours of worry and constant police visits. Now I was being told I had to get her out of bed so they could search my home, including her bedroom. They kept asking me about Matt’s tattoo, about his Carlisle football shirt. I knew at that moment he was dead. I messaged my friend Dan and asked him to come over. I knew I would need his help.
Forty minutes passed then five police officers filed into my kitchen and past a sleepy Holly. They ransacked my bedroom for about five minutes then filed back out again. One of them stayed behind and said he needed a word.
“There’s been an incident at a train station. The announcement for the fast-moving train was made and we believe Matthew stepped forward.” (I now know this not to be true: Matt waited calmly on the tracks for the train to hit him.)
“Fuck off!” was my response. Even though I already knew he was dead, I was in shock. I felt breathless, sick and horrified all at the same time. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. “What do I tell Holly?” I asked, knowing the police officer couldn’t answer. I asked Dan to come into the kitchen and left Holly snuggled on the couch. I had no idea how I would say the words out loud. The police officer explained it to Dan and then asked me for something with Matt’s fingerprints on. My brain was completely frozen. Everything had his fingerprints on; he had lived with me for two years.
I decided to put Holly to bed and let her sleep before telling her; Dan pulled me in for a hug but I felt hollow. It was as if I was going to collapse to the floor at any moment.
For the next few days I cried until my cheeks were sore and my eyes stung. It felt like I would never stop. I couldn’t face my daughter. I knew she was devastated and there was nothing I could do to make it better.
We spent time at Matt’s Mum’s house. We were surrounded by his grieving family. I felt so guilty. I wanted to continually apologise for not keeping him alive. For not helping him enough. I felt ashamed of my own sadness when I was looking at the pain on their faces.
The next few months were a blur. I drank heavily at times but kept myself busy, and I discovered a wealth of support for Holly and myself. My friends wrapped us in their love and kept me strong.
I wish I could say my story is a rare one, but it isn’t. Male suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Statistics from the ONS state that 4,020 men committed suicide in 2013. In reality this figure is much higher, as inquests often record suicides as ‘death by misadventure’ or similar. For every age group, the rate of men taking their lives is higher than that of women. We need to recognise that this is a gender issue.
“We need to create a society in which we all question the expectations put on men, and open up spaces where men feel they can discuss stuff with their families, their mates, or their doctors without feeling like less of a man for doing so.”
The theory of toxic masculinity claims that men are expected to conform to certain ideals: the idea that “real men” are “strong”, for example, and that showing emotion is incompatible with strength. (Anger is seen as the exception to this rule or not seen as an emotion.) Men with mental health problems are seen as outside the norm – weird and freakish – when we know the opposite to be true, given studies suggest that one in four adults in the UK suffer with some form of mental health concerns.
When boxer Frank Bruno was discovered to have bipolar disorder, the press was cruel in its reporting of his struggles. The same thing happened to Stuart Goddard (Adam Ant) who received terrible press when he was suffering psychosis. This offensive portrayal of men who suffer with a mental illness has improved slightly, but the attitude has become so deeply entrenched in our culture that men often don’t feel able to talk to their loved ones or peers about their problems.
Matt and I started dating in March 2012. We met on OKCupid through a mutual love of the band Neu!. The night I first met Matt was Mother’s Day. He arrived at my house looking beautifully scruffy and dishevelled. We were very smitten instantly. With Holly, the three of us were, in our own way, a perfect family unit. As much as Matt wasn’t Holly’s biological father, he was a wonderful Dad. He cared for her amazingly while I suffered with my own mental health problems.
I was aware Matt had suffered with depression, but he always seem to spring back. He was prescribed Fluoxetine but was terrible at remembering to take it and towards the end of his life was pretending to take it daily. I only found out he wasn’t when the CID came during one of the many police visits that went on that day. I had argued with Matt the day before about him not attending a doctor’s appointment. I had booked him one as he had told me he was low. I was frustrated with him because I felt I was doing all I could to support him. Obviously Matt decided not to go – he had already decided he was going to end his life the next day.
It didn’t need to be that way. CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) has dedicated its work to raising awareness of male suicide. It also offers telephone support and in 2013, CALM received over 80,000 calls to the helpline. More than 80% of these were from men, of all different backgrounds, all worried about their mental health.
“CALM is dedicated to preventing male suicide,” says Brid McKeown, the charity’s volunteer and supporter engagement officer. “Suicide currently stands as the single biggest killer of men aged 20-45 with, on average, 13 men ending their lives every day in the UK – that’s equivalent to a rugby league team. In 2013, nearly 8 out of 10 suicides in the UK were male.”
CALM’s helpline and webchat services are open 365 days a year, and the charity also offers support, information and entertainment to men via its website and magazine, CALMzine, which contains a wealth of features and interviews that embrace what it is to be a man in the UK today.
“We talk about what’s hot and what’s not, what to challenge and why,” explains McKeown. “We want to create a space to challenge stereotypes and preconceptions, to create a safe space for men to talk about what’s going on without feeling weak or less of a man for doing so.”
Started in 1997 as a Department of Health initiative in Manchester, CALM then moved over to Merseyside to respond to a spike in male suicide there. Once this project began to close down, head of the charity Jane Powell partnered up with Factory Records’ boss Tony Wilson to launch it as a national charity. It’s been going strong ever since, gaining more support and increasing awareness of the issue.
“The pressures on men to be silent and strong mean men aren’t asking for help when they need it,” says McKeown. “It’s socially acceptable for women to talk about problems and seek support, but not for men. How many times do guys get told to ‘man up’ or ‘grow some’?
“Suicide is something that everyone may think about at one time or another, but it’s not talked about,” she continues. “Suicide rates for women have halved since the 1980s [in 1980 there were 2177 probable female suicides, from 1986 this number started dropping year on year, and in 2013 the number was 1120], but male suicide is currently at a 15-year high.
“No matter our sex, we all hit crises from time to time, and we could all do with specialist support when that happens. There is no one reason why men end their lives – we’re all different, and we all have different problems – but what CALM does is try to tackle any social barriers by using men’s peers, voices and interests to get men engaged in the issue and stand up to say they refuse to be a man down.”
Male suicide isn’t going away and it is a gender issue – asking for help is still seen as a female thing. As a society we need to dispel the myths that are killing our partners, fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers and friends. “The government needs to recognise that suicide is currently a gendered issue and create an effective national strategy to deal with it,” says McKeown. “And we need to create a society in which we all question the expectations put on men, and open up spaces where men feel they can discuss stuff with their families, their mates, or their doctors without feeling like less of a man for doing so.”
It’s not far off a year since Matt died. I feel very blessed to have known him, if only for a few years. Holly and I are still getting our lives on track. We are looking forward to moving into a new home and building some new happy memories – but without forgetting the many we have of Matt.
Sign up to the campaign via the website to get more involved, or donate via CALM’s Justgiving page. If you’d prefer bank transfer, please get in touch at [email protected], and cheques can be made payable to CALM, and sent to CALM, PO Box 68766, London, SE1P 4JZ. Just £6 can fund a potentially life-saving phone call. Thank you.
CALM runs a helpline (0800 58 58 58) and webchat services from 5pm to midnight every day of the year. https://www.thecalmzone.net
Gem Carlier is a single Mum adopted by Yorkshire, kicking the patriarchy and learning to love salad.