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News | Fri 17th Nov, 2023
In the run up to International Men’s Day 2023, Paul Stagg writes about why this year’s theme is so important.
November 19th every year is International Men’s Day. Knowing this fact gives you a straightforward answer when, in the run-up to March 8th every year and the subject of International Women’s Day is broached, someone says in the pub or on some dark recess of the internet, “when’s International Men’s Day?”, as if they’ve made some killer argument. The comedian Richard Herring has been forced for years to expend needless energy on Twitter, or whatever we’re now supposed to call it, spreading the word about IMD to individuals too lazy to use a search engine.
But IMD is not just about some kind of half-hearted equivalent to IWD. Its aim is to highlight what men bring to the world, their families and communities, and the support that they need to do so. In 2023, its theme is “zero male suicide”. The statistics are shocking. Suicide is the largest cause of deaths in men under the age of 50. In England and Wales, around three men take their own lives for every woman that does so. Nor is it a problem centred around the young as some (including myself) might have assumed; suicides in both sexes peak between the ages of 45 and 55. It is also heavily associated with economic deprivation, with the rate of suicide in the most deprived areas being almost double that in the most prosperous areas.
Suicide doesn’t just rob the world of individuals who have much to give; it also devastates those who are left behind. At school, I had two friends to whom I’ll refer as John and Simon – not their real names, but I hate the dehumanising alphabet soup that is created when initials are used to describe real human beings.
John was a quiet, softly-spoken, unassuming guy who left school at 16. He had a long-standing desire to join the army and was accepted. He struggled a bit with the basic training, going AWOL a couple of times, but soon found his feet, and two years in, married his childhood sweetheart who was then aged only 16 herself. They soon welcomed their first child into the world. John, however, was dissatisfied with life as a regular soldier and developed a passion to join the SAS. His application to transfer into the elite force, however, was rejected. I bumped into him in the pub the following Christmas when we were back visiting family in our home town and we spoke briefly. He told me about his rejected application and then went quiet. I expressed sympathy and he gave a half-smile, shrugged his shoulders and said “life goes on”. A few months later, he was found dead, having taken his own life. He had just turned 20. He left a note that complained of bullying within the army and also indicating that he wasn’t able to cope with the frustration of his ambition to join the SAS.
I was a lot closer to Simon at school. He was something of a polymath. He was extraordinarily bright academically, but also took up the guitar at about 14 and quickly mastered the instrument in a way that I, a musical hack, could never dream of doing. I was in bands with him throughout the sixth form. He was a lot of fun to spend time with, but had demons in his soul arising from exposure to violence in the family home when he was little. After we went our separate ways to university, we drifted a little. We spoke on the phone periodically, but he was reluctant to come back to our home town where he had frequently suffered racial abuse. During the first Christmas vacation after we had gone to university, we were attacked in the street by local thugs on the way home from the pub. As our twenties progressed, Simon became more and more detached from his school friends. He was passionate about linguistics, the subject in which he’d done a Masters, but was unable to secure funding for a PhD and instead studied accountancy. He was good at that job as well, but became progressively more uncommunicative after moving to an isolated area of the country to take up a job. Sadly, he ended his life at the age of 26, having suffered from severe depression for some time. Attending his funeral was one of the most difficult days of my life.
The common theme with those tragedies, I think, is that John and Simon seemed to have no outlet for their anguish and no help to try to come to terms with it. It’s no answer to assume that everything is OK if someone has a close family, as John did. Sometimes talking frankly to those that love us is the hardest thing of all. And if I can indulge in amateur psychology for a moment, I believe that it’s often harder for men to talk honestly about their feelings with the friends and family than it is for women. It’s not seen as ‘manly’ to do so, and those attitudes die hard, even in 2023.
I believe that one of the greatest benefits of the internet is that it has made it far easier for us to stay in touch with and communicate with friends who we don’t see that often. But WhatsApp isn’t the whole answer. Some friends are better than others at helping us process difficult times in our life, but as I know from my own experience earlier in life, sometimes you need help from someone who is trained to assist you do so and who can offer the perspective of someone without any emotional stake in the situation in which you find yourself. Sometimes, if you suffer from mental illness, you need medical help. One of the reasons why the theme of this year’s IMD is a good thing is that it may encourage more men (and women) to seek that help before it is too late.
The legal profession is, belatedly, recognising that our professional bodies have a role in promoting the well-being of legal practitioners. Individual organisations are also doing so. At Deka, we have subscribed to an organisation called OpenUp which offers direct access to trained psychologists. And we all have a role in ensuring that everyone feels able to seek help when they need it. I’m providing helpful links below to lawyers and others who may need to seek help with their wellbeing. As someone once said, it’s good to talk.
IMD Video: https://youtu.be/tX8TgVR33KM?feature=shared
Wellbeing at the Bar: https://www.wellbeingatthebar.org.uk/
Law Society Pastoral Care Helpline: 020 7320 5795
The Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
James’ Place: https://www.jamesplace.org.uk/get-support/
Men’s Minds Matter: https://mensmindsmatter.org/