Another week, we might be discussing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s alarming new suicide report in abstract terms.
The CDC announced Thursday that suicide rates increased in all but one U.S. state from 1999 to 2016, and they rose by more than 30 percent in 25 of those states. The report also noted that nearly 45,000 Americans died of suicide in 2016, which, for perspective, is more people than Chicago’s Wrigley Field can hold during a sold-out baseball game.
But this wasn’t a week in which suicide felt vague or far off. On Tuesday, we learned of the passing of beloved fashion designer Kate Spade, and Friday brought news that chef Anthony Bourdain too had died while in France to film his CNN show “Parts Unknown.”
Suddenly, we all knew someone who had taken their own life. And at least one mental health organization connected those celebrity stories to America’s broader suicide crisis. In its statement on Spade’s death, the American Association of Suicidology pointed out that 28 women die by suicide every day in the U.S. and that, for middle-aged women in particular, it’s one of the top 10 causes of death. In another statement Friday, the organization added that, as they mourn Bourdain, they “also mourn the death of the other 95 men who will die by suicide today in the U.S.”
As a journalist who covers mental health, and as a man who has long grappled with anxiety and depression, one of the most haunting things about the CDC’s report was news that 84 percent of men who die by suicide don’t have a known mental health condition. This suggests thousands of men are suffering privately before seeking what one previously suicidal former Marine called “a release from the pain, fear, and hatred that dominated my life” in an anonymously authored May 2018 Task & Purpose essay.
To my fellow dudes: Mental health treatment is not some abstract, foreign thing that happens for other people in a hospital somewhere.
Guys, we don’t have to continue like this. And I know this from experience.
Exactly one year ago, I was reeling from a maelstrom of life events: a breakup, three funerals in two months and years’ worth of accumulated career stress exacerbated by workaholic tendencies. I tumbled into profound depression. I wasn’t suicidal, but I was far from healthy. On May 29, I wrote in a diary entry that I’d become a “totally scrambled person.” On June 1, I described working to meet a journalism deadline as “virtually unbearable.” Two days later, I wrote, “I’m in one of those periods where every day feels like a battle.”
I consider myself a pretty sensitive, well-informed, forward-thinking guy who isn’t weighed down by too much toxic masculinity. But as I look back on the events that led to that depressive spell, I realize that, for years, it felt excruciating to ask for help ― both in the form of entering therapy (which I had done a few months before that depressive spell) and in smaller ways, like asking favors from friends and co-workers, or even telling someone I was having a hard time. Are the men dying of suicide with no known mental health condition suffering from a similar mindset? Do these men even know basics facts about mental health care?
If so, here’s a rare instance in which I encourage men to be way more self-centered in their thinking. To my fellow dudes: Mental health treatment is not some abstract, foreign thing that happens for other people in a hospital somewhere. It’s about you, even if you’ve never once sat on a therapist’s couch. You may be a truck driver in Nevada, or a stock broker in Chicago, or a line cook in Florida, or a police officer in Topeka, or unemployed in Dallas or a millionaire in Seattle. Whoever you are, there is an entire industry of people out there who want to help you.
We’re talking about thousands of smart, compassionate people who have studied and trained for years, who go to conferences and read books and write papers, all for the purpose of helping you. They have room in their schedules to help you, and if they don’t, they’ll refer you to a trusted colleague who does. Their offices are a safe, confidential space to cry, vent and maybe share things you’ve never told anybody.
In my case, a continued regimen of therapy, introspection and self-care hasn’t just been instrumental to my recovery; over time, it has helped flip my understanding of what it means to be a man. I now view vulnerability (which I desperately avoided for so long) as a form of toughness. I now see seeking help as a sign of strength. I haven’t perfected either one, but I’m working on it. And I feel like a better man as a result.
I now view vulnerability (which I desperately avoided for so long) as a form of toughness. I now see seeking help as a sign of strength.
The hopeful news amid this week’s tragedies is that, as the National Institutes of Mental Health tells us, suicide is often preventable. And a key step in that prevention is education. Some of the resources I’ve found most valuable aren’t dense psychology textbooks but things like Andrew Solomon’s TED Talk on depression, Matt Haig’s book Reasons to Stay Alive or, if you want something more official, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual’s entry on major depressive disorder. This latest CDC report also includes valuable practical information, like tips for recognizing suicide warning signs. Information is a key weapon in battling the stigma men face when it comes to mental illness.
Today, I looked back on my old diary entries with a sense of wonder and gratitude. I’m not “cured” of my anxiety or negative thoughts, but I’m in a much better place. After months of numbness, my full spectrum of emotions has returned. I have renewed energy, and purpose, and curiosity, and anger, and mental clarity and so many of the other things depression can snatch from you.
On Friday, following news of Bourdain’s death, Vox journalist Zack Beauchamp shared a story of his own mental health crisis and recovery, which hinged on when he “stopped hiding the way I felt, and clued in people who loved me about what was going on.” Elsewhere, Peter Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!” described the pivotal role antidepressants played in his mental health. For the author of that Task & Purpose piece, it was a remembered phrase from a platoon sergeant he admired: “Thinking of suicide is a sign of a medical emergency.” My turning point was a spell of depression and burnout so powerful I was unable to work my way through it.
Each guy’s story of healing and recovery is going to look a little different. But they all start, at some point, with talking. And as the CDC report points out, this doesn’t and cannot just fall to the person struggling. Under the heading “5 Steps to Help Someone at Risk” is a simple suggestion:
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
Philip Eil is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island. He was the news editor and staff writer at the alt-weekly newspaper the Providence Phoenix until the paper closed in 2014. Since then, he has contributed to The Atlantic, Salon, Vice and Boston Magazine, among other publications.