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Invisible Suicides

The Ottawa Citizen, by Jeffrey Asher, May 16, 2002

StatsCan recently reported on a 10% increase in suicides. But StatsCan persists in ignoring the group of Canadians at greatest risk for suicide, as do the media and professional reports. Suicide is a microcosm for those most under stress and most at risk of unresolved crisis in society. Suicides may logically be categorized as 100% citizens of Canada, and then as 79% male. The most critical measure of depression - suicide - is counted overwhelmingly in male corpses. For over 23 years widespread media and professional attention concentrated on 12,500 AIDS deaths, compared to little concern with 92,000 suicides.

Every three hours in Canada, another male kills himself. In the 1990s, at least 800 females ended their lives along with 3200 males. From 1960 to 1980 male suicides in the 20 - 24 age group increased by over 200%. After age 70, women's suicide rates decline gradually, but men's rates, already five times higher, rise another 50%. This startling male suicide data should have raised alarms decades ago among researchers and journalists across Canada. The absence of widespread prevention campaigns to save lives from more than 4000 suicides every year seems incomprehensible.

Health Canada's "Suicide 1995" report Health Canada refers to suicides in mostly gender-neutral terms. Special sections were devoted to "High Risk Groups": aboriginal communities, gay men and lesbians, and persons in custody. Combined, they receive 6.5% of the report, but are less than 1% of suicides. Throughout the report, females receive 34% of the report text, and constitute 21% of all suicides. Males receive 11% of the text, and are 79% of all suicides. The media follow Health Canada's lead, and their few articles on suicide describe suicide victims in terms of geography, age and ethnicity, but rarely as four males for each female.

A shortened life span and high suicide rates are understood world-wide as indicators of neglect of mental and physical health and destructive social stresses. Decades of media, legal and government campaigns have humiliated and demonized men. Those men are not strangers. They are your grandfathers, fathers, uncles, sons, lovers, co-workers, and friends. In old-age homes across the country, women outnumber men over five to one. Ask those widows about the early deaths of the men they loved.

Men are still defined by their incomes. A man is expected to preserve his wife and children from the insecurity and deprivations caused by poverty. The media and social scientists have yet to examine the burdens on men of an unpredictable economy. Husbands and fathers blame themselves for low income, job loss, bankruptcy, and family poverty. If he cannot provide adequately for his family, a man loses the central definition and meaning for his life.

Fathers' loyalty and sense of duty to their families are paid for with their physical and mental health, and years cut off their lives. Ninety-seven percent of deaths on the job are men. We should be surprised that more marginalized men have not been driven to emotional alienation, despair, impotence, and suicide. A shrinking or erratic economy abandons growing numbers of men to homelessness and a desperate and hopeless existence as street vagrants. Almost all who beg on the street are men. Most escape into drunken oblivion. They welcome death.

A significant contributor to suicide is un-resolvable emotional stress. Over 25 years, men's affectionate overtures have become a daily minefield. Armed with unequal laws, women define acceptable sexual behavior for men, in public or private. From the first introduction, to beyond the thirtieth year of marriage, men are expected to initiate and maintain romance. A man's appeal to share lovemaking with his partner may result in her self-righteous denunciation of him as an animal. He meant to compliment. He wanted to share intimacy, passion and love. With his deepest emotions debased, in his own mirror, he begins to see a lecher and a brute. Years of this kind of invective and legal persecution leave many men spiritually dead.

Fathers increasingly fear legal escalation of their wives' dissatisfaction. From 1968 to 1992, divorce rates rose 500%. All of society will pay for generations for divorce laws and family courts wielded as weapons of politically correct father persecution. Canadian laws and courts encourage vengeful and psychologically disturbed mothers' alienation of children from their fathers. Fathers reduced to weekend hours with their children are further humiliated in the media as 'deadbeat dads'. Custodial mothers may cancel fathers' visitation rights at their whim, without fear of consequences. The family home and assets may be liquidated and the children emigrated so that custodial mothers may follow their new lovers out of Canada.

Fathers despair of justice. Divorced fathers are routinely presumed guilty of any charges brought against them, and humiliated and persecuted to the point where they have nothing left to lose. How many 'thrown-away' fathers have decided that their shattered lives are worthless to their children, compared to the cash value of their life insurance?

Many men try to suppress their sexual needs. Some husbands sneak into extra-marital affairs, and undermine two families. Some men pay prostitutes and deepen their emptiness. Others try to bury their spurned affections in work, and cynicism. They despair about the future and the meaning of their lives.

Sons of divorce lack an essential male role model; they display exaggerated 'macho' behaviour, failure in school, drug abuse, and lack of skills for affection and love. Fatherless sons and locked-out fathers drift to alcoholism, apathy about health and safety, mental illness, violence, and suicide.

Most feminists dismiss the high male suicide rates as further 'proof' that men are biologically programmed for violence, but would denounce such racist pseudo-science if it were applied to any other group. They seem to believe that just being born male excludes a human being from compassion. Few people search for the warning signs of suicide in men.

Women who attempt suicide benefit from widespread empathy, and governments have funded many resources to come to women's aid. Men in crisis need equivalent resources: funds, structures and skills. Even when desperate, men are reluctant to appeal for help, and abandon their last shred of dignity. They must be sought out, offered real opportunities for aid and life reconstruction, and treated with respect and affection.

Hold your son or grandson your lap, in your arms. Look into his eyes, and ask yourself what you can do to help him live a long and fulfilling life. Take your man into your arms and remember that the love of a woman can brighten his day and give meaning to his future. Although he may not say it, his family means more to him than his life.

Until its controversial cancellation, Jeffrey Asher taught the only course on Men's Lives in Canada.
Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen