The April 13th edition of BBC TV’s venerable current affairs programme, Panorama, was quite unusual. The edition was called “A death in the family”, presented by the Radio 4 Today programme’s business correspondent, Simon Jack.
Simon explained that he had proposed the programme to Panorama as he approached his 44th birthday and would be the same age as his father was when he committed suicide in 1989. His enquiry after 26 years was not simply into what brought his own father to take his life but also to try and make sense of the statistic he had discovered during his research that just under 5,000 men commit suicide each year in the UK – 100 men every week. Suicide is the biggest cause of death of young men under the age of 50. Close to 80% of all suicides are men.
“It wasn’t a traditional Panorama,” Simon told me when I spoke to him a week after the transmission for his reflections not just on the making of the programme but in the response to it. “There was no big ‘reveal’ or an interview pinning down some wrongdoer at the end. “
What there was was a personal story, his own, finding out for the first time about the last weeks of his father’s life, but also a journalistic exercise in exploring whatever facts are available that might place his father’s actions in a bigger picture.
“We’d never really talked about it as a family. What I discovered was that my mother was tougher than I thought. I also discovered I was more fragile than I thought. I had to remind myself that I was applying a reporter’s discipline to the story. I didn’t want it to be either a sentimental tale or a freak show.”
In my view he was successful in both those ambitions. As modern measures go, he added 1,000 twitter followers in the hours following transmission. He also received thousands of e mails – “not one nasty one out of 10,000”.
The figures for Scotland, (slightly confused by a recent change in World Health Organisation definition of suicide to include ‘death by undetermined intent’ which adds about 50 a year to the statistics) show a similar shape to the UK pattern but are proportionately worse by most measures. Both men and women have a higher suicide rate than their equivalents in England and Wales.
In 2013, on the old definitions, 570 (76%) of the 746 deaths by suicide were men. That’s between one and two a day. 82 of them in the single age cohort between 40-44.
Largely driven by a disturbing toll of suicides among young men in their teens and twenties in the late 1990s and 2000s, and nodding in the direction of ‘Trainspotting’, a public health initiative called Choose Life was set up by the Scottish Executive specifically to provide interventions to support the groups most at risk. Alongside the long-standing Samaritans phone line a separate helpline called Breathing Space was created within NHS Scotland.
In its most recent report, published last November, Choose Life reported the number of suicides had fallen by 19%, during its 10 years of existence. The numbers in those younger years has fallen by half in that time though suicides in the over 40s has continued to rise substantially.
It is manifest that suicide rates generally increase with increasing deprivation, with rates in the most deprived areas of Scotland significantly higher than the Scottish average.
I recalled I made a short series of programmes for BBC Radio Scotland in 1997 in a series I cheerily called “Dying for Scotland”. In my head I described them as a romp through the mortality statistics of the 20th Century. I have always been fascinated by how short the public memory is for the life we ourselves lived never mind our limited capacity for conceiving the ailments and catastrophes that invaded the homes of our parents and grandparents. The programmes were commissioned for a 15 minute lunchtime slot that existed then. For those with 13 minutes and 43 second to spare the 1997 programme is here: http://tinyurl.com/nmcxsj6
It was extraordinary to read through the newspaper cuttings of the 1920s, 30s and 40s to read detailed reporting of suicides of a sort limited only to ‘celebrities’ today but which was evidently on a general reporter’s beat then.
My wee programme also showed how easy it is for interesting statistics to lead to interestingly misplaced certainties. Sir John Sibbald delivered a paper on suicide in Scotland to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1902. Drawing on comparative suicide statistics from the Scottish counties and burghs in which the lowest rates were reported from the Highlands and the highest from Kincardineshire, Forfarshire, Midlothian and Linlithgow and Haddington Sir John confidently pronounced that this was evidence that “the Saxon is more likely to take his own life than the Celt.”
By 1955 those particular genetic lines on the graph had crossed. Perhaps Sir John was seduced by the statistics to ask the wrong questions. Or he underestimated the willingness of of some GPs to write suicide – or self murder as it used to be – on the death certificate knowing the effect that would have on the chances of burial in a kirkyard or a payout on a life insurance policy.
Which brings me back to animated debate brought on by Panorama.
The programme’s message was that it is important for men to talk more. Simon Jack’s mother said that they had had a very loving marriage. “I didn’t know all the problems he was having because he didn’t discuss it. I think he thought he’d dug a hole so deep he couldn’t get out of it.”
Reference was made to men’s “emotional illiteracy” and, several times to recent Samaritan’s research which identified their issues of “masculinity”, so often used a term of disdain it is probably time for sociologists to find another word if they want men to engage with it positively.
The last word in the programme went to Jane Powell, founder and Chief Executive of CALM – the Campaign Against Living Miserably – suggesting that men talking more about feelings would help. “And talk is free.”
Most of the social media responses picked on the shocking figure of 100 men a week putting an end to their life. Surely there could be nothing wrong with raising the profile of a phenomenon that reveals such despair among the individuals who gave up their struggle to survive but who also leave hurt and bewildered, and as Simon Jack acknowledged, angry family and friends behind.
However, the message drew a blistering blog attack by Karen Woodall, who works in the field of Parental Alienation. She wrote, “My second reaction was serious concern which grew into anger at the realisation that the sole idea that was being put forward in this documentary was a feminist construct that if men were more like women and talked about their feelings, their despair would not drive them to death. So let’s look at what talking about it does for the men who are most at risk of suicide in the UK. “
She then went on to list an A – Z of institutions, services and attitudes that actively ignore or discourage or even punish men who want to talk about the wrong things or in a way that doesn’t suit the prevailing narrative about relationships.
Comments posted to her blog [http://tinyurl.com/o55572u] gave specific examples of how an admission of depression had been used against the individuals in a range of situations from family court cases to employment and career progression.
So I went back to Jane Powell to ask for her response. I think it is fair to report that she was pleased with the Panorama for raising the issue of male suicide to millions of people but that her contributions “weren’t everything I would have wanted to say.” She has a lot to say so don’t expect a short phone call.
I suspect she and Karen Woodall have more that unites than divides them.
In the Panorama programme Joe Ferns, Samaritans’ Executive Director of Policy, Research and Development gave the hypothetical example of colleagues coming into work and finding a female colleague in tears at her desk. “Someone would automatically take her off to the toilets and find out what had happened and it would be seen as an opportunity to rally round and help.”
His example rather petered out but Jane Powell finishes the thought rather more robustly. “If people came in and found a male colleague in tears at his desk they’d be embarrassed. They’ll think he’s not fit for work. Send him home. And maybe he’s dangerous. ‘Fuck, he could do anything!’.”
That seems to be a better description of emotional illiteracy among everyone else rather than the individual man. For men to feel freer to speak they must be confident that they won’t be disadvantaged for doing so. Many have painful experience of the opposite.
Jane Powell says, “For the first 5 years of CALM I think most people thought I was an old bag with a bee in her bonnet. I still find it hard to persuade governments or public agencies to step beyond wringing their hands that this is a terrible shame to driving a gender specific strategy that meets men on the journey that they may be taking on the road to despair. We know that a real man hurts, bleeds, feels pain and fucks up. When they’re in distress and feeling trapped by their despair they may drink too much, drive too fast and behave badly. Not always but sometimes. But we also know they write poetry, sing songs and work communicate their feelings in a thousand ways. It’s not a strategy to tell them to behave more like women. We have been looking at the specific needs of women brilliantly for years. Why is there such resistance to doing the same for men?”
Professor Stephen Platt, recently retired, has been the leading figure in suicide research in Scotland for more than 30 years. He appeared in my 1997 programme explaining even then that there were three contributing factors that appeared to have a role in drawing more men towards suicide. They were psychology including the interaction between depression and alcohol-related illness; culture; and social wellbeing which included (un)employment and marriage breakdown.
Choose Life has associated itself with the decline in suicide figures during its first ten years. It had a target of reducing suicide by 20% so 19% is clearly encouraging. Stephen Platt says the development of ‘brief’ primary care programmes treating drug and alcohol abuse and depression has been a factor. But he counsels that there hasn’t been an independent “outcome evaluation” that would change an association to a cause.
Nor does he think there has been any academic research into the kind of actively disincentive factors listed by Karen Woodall and the sense of defeat that may lead to suicide.
To reflect the Panorama pay off I’ll also leave the last word to Jane Powell. “Until we come clean about what the experience of men who take their lives is we won’t convince them that we’re here to help. There’s no point in telling them to talk if there’s no-one to listen or worse tell them that they’re feeling the wrong sort of feelings for us to listen to. The last words of so many is that there’s no place in the world for them and that their friends and family would be better off without them. It’s a deep hole and we need to find all the ways possible to help them out of it, not tell them men should stop digging holes.”
A Death in the Family will be available for a few days more at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05rcrx0