Let's start with some stats: in every country in the world, male suicides outnumber female suicides. In Britain, men are three times more likely to end their own lives than women, and suicide remains the most common cause of death in men under the age of 35. Of the 5,981 suicides in the UK in 2012, 4,590 were men.
Deeply concerned by the prevalence of male suicide, Alex Eaton, founder of the Eaton Foundation, decided to take the issue into his own hands. Earlier this month he opened the first male-only mental health centre in the country. "It's important to have a male-only centre, because men find it hard to talk about their feelings. It's that age-old thing of men being macho," says Eaton. "Having a men's centre is a very simple concept. I'm surprised we're the first of its kind."
In Eaton's view, most suicides are preventable if those at risk know where to get help. "We don't go far enough to prevent suicide in Britain. Doctors would rather take the easy way out and chuck you some antidepressants," he reflects. "But if somebody came to our centre with suicidal thoughts, we would react to it, safeguard them instantly and seek the relevant help. Talking openly and honestly can save lives."
It was while mourning his father's death that Eaton first decided to set up the foundation. "My father, Neil Eaton, died in June, 2013, and we set up the Eaton Foundation in August, 2013 in Burton-on-Trent while I was still grieving for him," he explains. "In the last week we've opened a proper centre in a new building – it used to belong to an architecture company and has lots of stained glass windows. Sadly, if there had been something like this around at the time, my father would probably still be here today."
Eaton's father suffered from mental health problems, addiction and depression for much of his life. "My dad was a big drinker. He would drink all the super strength lagers. When I was younger he slipped a disc in his back, so his mobility was very bad," he tells me. "He was in a lot of pain and on morphine and sleeping tablets. It became a huge problem because he was taking both the drugs and alcohol. One day, his body simply shut down and he died at the age of 53."
In Eaton's view, his father was not getting the help he needed and deserved. "The problem with the NHS's mental health teams is they won't touch you if you're drunk or under the influence," he says. "But when you're under the influence, you don't have the mental capacity to take decisions for yourself."
The death took its toll on Eaton. He suffered from depression for about a year and ended up having to leave his job. "However, opening the foundation in my father's memory really helped my recovery," he reflects.
And, clearly, it's helping others too. "We see around 40 men per week and we respond to referrals within a day," Eaton explains. "We receive referrals from statutory services, third sector and from self-referrals and third-party referrals from family or friends."
Besides its focus on men, Eaton believes there's something else that distinguishes the Eaton Foundation from other mental health centres. "We believe in a holistic approach. When you're going to one service for housing, another for debt and another for mental health, you're constantly telling your story here, there and everywhere," he explains. "We do not believe that men's issues should be treated in a vacuum, because they did not arise or affect them in a vacuum."
For this reason, the centre helps men with the whole host of problems they face. "We've helped people with mental health, debt, benefits, housing – we've even been to court for disability allowance appeals," says Eaton. "I believe that consistency is key. I think that's why they feel safe coming here. We can support a man suffering with depression following dependency because of bereavement and a marriage breakdown all in one place. About 20 percent who come to us say they're suicidal, so obviously we take safeguarding measures."
The service caters for men from the tender age of 19 up to 70. "We are very much about empowering clients. We don't believe in being directive," Eaton explains. "We held focus groups of our clients and asked them what they wanted in the new centre and we listened to them."
For the first two years, the foundation was entirely voluntary, with no salaries or funding for sessional fees, but it now employs three paid members of staff and ten volunteers. One of these volunteers is Rob Gilholy. "Gilholy suffered from mental health issues and was quite deep into dependency and addiction," explains Eaton. "We got him into detox and he's now six months clean and works as a peer support worker. I saw loads of potential in him and it was one of the best decisions I ever made."
Since opening, the Eaton Foundation has won five charity awards and has just been invited to join the male mental health research team in London UCL. "Funding permitted, one of our plans is to copy this centre and put it in every single town across the country," Eaton explains.
In providing a safe space for men to talk openly, the Eaton Foundation challenges rigid, destructive typecasts of masculinity. In doing so, it ultimately takes steps to tackle the silent epidemic of male suicide, a British epidemic that is only growing: new research suggests that the number of male mental health patients who die by suicide in the UK has increased by almost a third in the last decade.
To understand male suicide, you have to understand masculinity. For many, masculinity leaves no room for vulnerability, self-doubt or weakness. From a young age, men are conditioned, and later expected, to hide emotional fragility. Instead they must adhere to a narrow, restrictive view of manhood: a worldview characterised by power, dominance, rationality, control and aggression.
So when holding down a job, being a breadwinner and providing for your family is the barometer of "being a man", it can be acutely difficult to deal with things going wrong. If you're laid off, it's not just your job gone, it's your whole identity left in tatters. But being invulnerable is impossible for anyone. Just as nobody is immune to colds, nobody is immune to phases of doubt and anxiety.
Despite this, men remain reluctant to seek help for their mental health problems. In turn, depression continues to be under-diagnosed and under-treated among the male population. Put it like this: one in four women will require treatment for depression at some point in their life, compared to one in ten men, and yet men are four times as likely to commit suicide as women. Rather than seeking help, statistically speaking, men are far more likely to have an alcohol or drug problem – they're more likely to deal with their problems with a weeklong bender than a trip to the doctors. In turn, the rate of premature death (under 50 years old) is a staggering one-and-half times higher among men than women.
As we have seen, having a stiff upper lip or always acting the lad can quickly become exhausting, unsustainable and damaging. Patriarchy might privilege men who conform to its narrow view of success – i.e. those who are heterosexual, financially profitable, stoical, invulnerable and domineering – but it's less accommodating to those who don't conform. As such, it can be difficult to admit to going through a phase of crisis, depression or anxiety. The roles, character traits and behaviours we associate with manhood are all about control, but when men experience mental health problems, they lose control.
But gender isn't the only thing that has an impact on the probability of suicide. Unsurprisingly, the amount of cash in your pocket and life chances you have makes a difference, too. Those in the poorest socio-economic circumstances are ten times more likely to commit suicide than the affluent.
That said, it has to be remembered that it's never possible to truly know why someone chooses to take their own life. For this very reason, it's imperative we see the bigger picture and try to understand why so many men come to feel that they have no purpose, value or significance. Centres like the Eaton Foundation bring us further on this quest. The simple, humble act of providing a secure place for men to openly express their problems free from judgment will hopefully save many preventable deaths.
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