Irish Times

Wednesday, July 04, 2001

Reasons for male suicide all too clear

OPINION/John Waters
Irish Times

A remarkable aspect of our society is its insistence upon seeing mysteries where there are none, the objective of which increasingly appears to be the abrogation of what should be common responsibilities in favour of leaving matters to experts. One most disturbing context is the recent epidemic of suicides, particularly among young men.

The reasons young men might be disquieted on first encountering manhood in this society are not difficult to see. Irish society becomes increasingly inhospitable to everyone, but particularly to young and middle-aged adult men.

However, since we have a vested interest in not perceiving the reasons for this, it is vital that the response of the increasing number of young men who say "thanks, but no thanks" be interpreted as something else.

Where possible, we decide they are "mentally ill". Since mental illness is something only psychiatrists can explain or treat, there is, therefore, no onus on the rest of us to look for other explanations.

Psychiatrists, meanwhile, do not complain about the extra workload. Like most professions, they are not unhappy to find that more and more matters are falling within their area of competence. And so suicide becomes a matter on which only psychiatrists are qualified to speak. This they do sparingly because they have no explanation other than chemical malfunction, and they are not very sure even about this. They say suicide is almost invariably the result of depression.

When we ask what the source of the depression is, they refer to biochemical processes in the brain. When we ask if there is anything to be done, they write a prescription. Meanwhile, the young male suicide rate climbs.

A recent book, Beyond Prozac: Healing Mental Suffering Without Drugs, offers a different view of suicide and depression. Written by a practising GP, Dr Terry Lynch, who works in Limerick, it is published by Marino. It is in my view the single most important contribution to our understanding of suicide in the past 10 years.

Essentially, Dr Lynch is advancing the view that what we call "depression" is not a mental illness as commonly understood but a sane response to the external reality of the sufferer's life which is at present being inappropriately treated with drugs.

He argues that depression is a kind of refuge of the hurt, the rejected and the fearful, to which they go to escape further hurt, rejection or fear. He sees suicide as the final frontier in this process.

He also believes that the current obsession with the biochemical model of depression is preventing any real breakthrough because the condition known as depression is simply being buried under a mountain of drugs.

He says this condition, and indeed much of what we term "mental illness", is best treated by listening to and seeking to understand the "depressed" individual. Dr Lynch sees a role for professional counselling but argues for a more general context for doctors, relatives and society to begin reaching out to depressed people and offering them, well, love.

His book is not an academic one, going more for clarity of communication with the ordinary reader. This in some ways may be to its detriment in that it is likely to be dismissed or ignored by the psychiatric profession. However, as a statement by a qualified and practising doctor of something which many of us instinctively know to be true, it is a vital articulation of the unsayable.

Other than to note it and comment on it briefly, Dr Lynch does not deal in any detail with the predominantly male aspect of the suicide crisis. However, he does sketch a picture of the typical suicide victim as someone who is lonely, unsure of his or her identity and beset by contradictory demands and pressures - all existential rather than medical conditions.

I have suggested previously that, as a society, we have a responsibility to look at why young men seem particularly beset by such life conditions. I believe the clues reside in many of the areas I have been writing about in recent years, in particular in the set of double-binds with which society confronts the young man. He, on the one hand, is supposed to be tough and robust and energetic but, on the other, is condemned if he crosses certain unspecified lines.

For example, it is regarded as healthy that teenage boys look up to sporting heroes, celebrate strength and athleticism on the sporting field and emulate it where they can. Yet in school they are currently subjected to a programme, Exploring Masculinities, which gives them an almost opposite message about masculine prowess and sporting achievement.

Our society, through education, media, advertising and popular culture, confronts young men with similar double-binds at every turn.

Dr Lynch advocates, as an antidote to the loneliness of the young, that those close to them resort to the old-fashioned hug. This is no more than to restate the obvious truth, that the best way of keeping a human being connected and healthy is to love them unconditionally. I believe it is time we began, as a society, to formulate the social policy equivalent of an unqualified hug, to discover a way of celebrating our young men in an active, coherent and wholehearted way.

© 2001