Breaking the silence

Chris Bowden talks about his research into male suicide-loss survivors.

Chris Bowden stands before the stone tomb.

As a suicide-loss survivor myself, I know that suicide leaves people navigating a world of grief, darkness, and silence that can threaten to overwhelm them.

Between July 2016 and June 2017, there were 606 suicides in New Zealand and 75 percent (457) of them were men. That means there are thousands of men out there who have lost fathers, brothers, uncles, workmates, and friends.

Despite this significant gender difference, the research on suicide bereavement has predominantly focused on female adults’ and parents’ experiences. The New Zealand draft National Suicide Prevention Strategy has also failed to prioritise addressing suicide in men, is gender blind, and includes no men-centred interventions; and suicide postvention and support for men is virtually non-existent in New Zealand. There are also some big gaps in the research and action plans.

To address these gaps and help develop an understanding of men’s experiences, I recently undertook a study that asked: How do young adult men (17–25 years old) experience the suicide of a close male friend?

I spoke to some incredibly brave young men who broke the code of silence with me and described what it was like for them to lose their best mate to suicide.

One overarching theme was silence. The men described being gutted, remaining stoic, grieving in silence, being silenced by others, and breaking their silence with people they trusted. After analysing their descriptions of lived experience, I found they all experienced four types of silence: personal, private, public, and analytic.

From an early age, many men are socialised into traditional masculine norms and practices such as restricting and suppressing emotions, being tough, self-reliant, strong, and stoical. Some are taught to deal with their grief internally and cognitively and avoid things associated with femininity such as talking about feelings and expressing emotions.

Of the young men I spoke to, most said that their beliefs about self-reliance, their desire to control emotions, and their fear of social consequences of emotional expression—looking, or being judged as, ‘unmanly’—only reinforced their silence. Many New Zealand men have learnt to not talk about the messy stuff going on in their lives. They often compartmentalise, bottle it up, put on their armour, and go out into the world pretending they have it all together.

I found that the words and actions of others can also reinforce men’s silence. Family/whānau, friends, colleagues, and professionals are often pretty clueless when it comes to offering support to suicide-loss survivors. People don’t know what to do or say, and they don’t know how to provide gender-responsive support to men.

Some men may need male-centred support, compared with the usual approaches. They need to set their own pace and remain in control. Offering men alternative ways to express their grief through art, music, and drama can also be useful for managing distress and making sense of their experience of loss.

Suicide and coping with suicide loss are major issues in our country. Recognising what contributes to silence after suicide and offering malecentred support is an important first step towards a solution.