This blog comes with a trigger warning. For the second entry in the mental health blog series I interview a South Asian man who tragically lost a family member to suicide and shortly after falls into depression himself. Suicide is reported by mental health charities to be a growing problem among young men. I was curious as to how these statistics were broken down for black and Asian communities and how much we knew about suicide in the UK and around the world. I found the following.
Samaritans is the only organisation that collates suicide statistics for the UK, its nations, and the Republic of Ireland. These statistics are annually published in their Suicide Statistics Report. The following key facts were published in 2017 as collated and assessed in their 2018 annual report:
- In 2017 there were 6,213 suicides in the UK and Republic of Ireland of which 5,821 suicides were registered in the UK (392 in the Republic of Ireland).
- Men are three times as likely to take their own lives than women in the UK and four times more likely to take their own lives than women in Republic of Ireland.
Race was not looked at in the above statistics. The last time a report specifically looked at suicide in the South Asian community was in 2003. Academics have published their findings in an article called ‘Suicide in Ethnic Minority Groups’. This was followed by a four page report called ‘Suicide rates in people of South Asian origin in England and Wales: 1993-2003’ (linked).
Their findings touched upon the issue of suicide and pointed to the fact that much more research in this field was required. There are no published statistics addressing the number of suicides by Black and Minority Ethnic/BME men and women to date. BME mental health is seriously under researched and often overlooked by mainstream organisations. In my next blog in this series, Dr. Tina Mistry and myself discuss race and mental health in some detail.
Important note: If suicide is particularly upsetting for you then this may not be something for you to read right now. If you need any advice or support on how to deal with the suicide of a loved one or need to speak to someone who can help with suicidal thoughts than please reach out to Samaritans on their free helpline in the UK on 116 123 available to everyone 24/7. More specifically if you are a male and in need of support and feel more comfortable with a specific support network then you can contact Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) on 0800 58 58 58 – a free helpline available from 5pm to midnight every day. The NHS website is also a good source for information on suicidal thoughts.
As a British Asian man why do you think men, and specifically BME men struggle with addressing feelings of sadness and other mental health related issues?
Personally I think it’s because mental health has never really been considered a major issue within South Asian families. Growing up you were never told to talk about what was on your mind, or to share your feelings: good or bad, happy or sad. It was more a taboo subject than anything else. So it was easier to write off anyone facing difficulties with their mental health by dismissing it as ‘issues’. People would say ‘leave them to it’ rather than help the person in need obtain proper support. Why someone was feeling the way that they were feeling was just ignored.
You were hesitant to talk about mental health (despite wanting to) when initially approached for this interview. What were those barriers and how did you overcome them?
I’ve never liked the limelight or public speaking especially on issues close to my heart for fear of retribution. However recently I tragically lost my brother to mental health. Soon after I suffered with depression as a direct result of my loss. Mourning a loved one lost to suicide is agonising. During this difficult time in my life I had so-called friends using my depression to turn people against me in the workplace for their own self gain. It was cunningly thought through on their part. My vulnerability was used against me by friends I trusted in an attempt to convince my co-colleagues (who knew nothing about the reasons for my change in behaviour) that I was a horrible person. I was painted out to be a bully because my friend did not have my attention 24/7. All I ever was at the time is a grieving brother who was lost in pain. Narcissistic people will leech off your misfortune when you are in suffering. Remember that.
I became completely isolated from my co-workers who were now warry of me. They never understood why I was so off with everyone. False information fed to my co-workers by a ‘friend’ gave room for a toxic working environment. Not only was I miserable at home I was also now depressed at work.
This experience changed me. I re-focused my mind having learnt to take a more assertive tone towards people – who gives a f*** what someone thinks about me? They thought the worst of me anyway. If something needs to be said, I will now say it. Even if you do not agree with me, that’s ok – I have set boundaries in place that were never there before. I refuse to compromise my new-found values. Depression can teach you a lot about the people around you and it will also show you who your real friends are.
I saw the aftermath of suicide. The devastation it caused our family. The devastation it caused his family. Someone I loved lost their battle with mental health without ever opening up to anyone and without ever seeking professional help. I don’t think for a moment that my brother would have left this world the way he did had he known what was to come for the people who loved him so deeply: the confusion, the hurt, the anger, the anguish, the sorrow. All of it. Had he been aware of all of this I really don’t believe that he would have wanted to leave behind a family and life that had only just started. His suicide had left his wife and young children feeling confused and angry. Imagine dealing with a loss whilst trying to navigate through all of the heartache that suicide brings. His wife would pretend that everything was ok for their children just to bring about some sense of normality. It was devastating – it still is.
Having said that, I can now tell you why I was hesitant to say all of the above: because it’s so hard to talk about depression and the personal experiences that come with that but I have spoken because my story might just help someone else’s family.
The highest suicide rate for men in the UK is aged 45-49 (2018 Samaritans report). The rate for suicide among BME men is unknown. Do you think this is a problem?
Yes. This is an issue. Partly down to the fact that it’s not widely reported at which age a male of a certain ethnic background is most likely to take their own life. If there was some sort of consensus, maybe a better way of understanding and reaching those likely to act, then specialist help could and would be more widely available. This would also allow BME communities to widely educate each other by offering the community with information about what to look out for in their families, what situation could potentially trigger suicidal thoughts in someone, what warning signs and triggers do they need to look out for in someone who may perhaps be suffering with mental health issues. Raising awareness like this could help us save more lives than we lose.
Young men and specifically young boys are often said to refrain from talking about how they feel and what they’re going through. What social and environmental issues influence this culture of silence and how do we overcome them?
Society has created this problem: the books and newspapers that we read and the sort of television and movies that we watch. Growing up in the 90s I don’t think I ever saw any films or shows (in Bollywood, Hollywood and British television) where the storyline consisted of someone who was seeking professional help for their mental illness. There was never any mention of the sort of support that was available to them. I often asked myself, ‘Is there even any help out there?’. All we ever saw was someone feeling really low and depressed and them eventually taking their own life. Not once did filmmakers take some sort of onus upon themselves to demonstrate that proper professional help is available and that medication is an option to help get the chemical imbalance that causes imbalanced feelings in check.
Even today when the media is reporting on suicide or mental health, they fail to properly explain that there is help available. We always seem to focus on the tragic death caused by mental health and not what someone should do if they were feeling the same way – or where they can go for help. It’s usually just a number for a helpline in the credits. I agree that there is a growing focus on mental health in the work place however this needs to widely translate in to society.
How do you care for your own mental health and what advice would you give to other men struggling with theirs?
I find music and exercise have been a release for any negative emotion, and talking to my wife about how I feel or what I may have been thinking really helps. I think you need to find that one person you can be yourself with and open up to. This is key. Otherwise you will find yourself just saying “I’m ok, I’m fine” whilst inside you are getting angrier, more upset and even more depressed. It is ok to feel these things, it is not ok to lie to your family, but more importantly it is never ok to lie to yourself.
How can we encourage men to address difficult or uncomfortable conversations where mental health is concerned and what other factors do you think act as barriers preventing these conversations from taking place in the first instance?
The biggest barrier is taking the first step which is to speak about how you feel. We’re told “men are big and strong – you don’t cry, you don’t care, you don’t feel”. The fact is, we do all of them things and more. No matter how uncomfortable you think the conversations will be, once you start that conversation it will no longer be uncomfortable. You feel a sense of release and you begin to unburden yourself. You then realise, that you and your feelings – matter.
This short film is an important watch. It looks at male suicide as Professor Green explores his fathers suicide and why suicide is the biggest killer in men under 45 years of age.
Don’t leave it unsaid – talk.