Fear Of Falling

16th November 2012

On 27 November last year, football manager Gary Speed hanged himself. His action shocked both the footballing community, and the wider world, and raised the profile of mens’ mental health. As the first anniversary of his death approaches, Alex Gray looks at some of the issues…

Imagine I told you that four years ago, James, 34, a father of two young children, lost his battle with cancer. I expect you’d feel sadness at a young life cut so short, and sorrow for the loss to his family, especially for the children that would now grow up without their father.

Now imagine that I told you the same story, but explained that James didn't have cancer: he took his own life. I guess your sorrow for the family would be just as deep, but I also imagine that your sense of shock would be palpable. Why on earth would a young man with so much to live for do such a thing?

Shocking as it may be, the truth is that, according to the Department of Health, suicide is the most common cause of death in men under 35. Moreover, around five thousand people take their own lives in England every year, and of those, 75 per cent are male, with young men, aged 19 to 34, in the most at risk category.

“Men up to age of 35 are the least likely to be in touch with services like their GP, and are least likely to listen to messages about their health,” says Ajax Scott, Chair of the Trustees of the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). “There's a lot of truth in the assertion that men have difficulty talking. Opening up is alien to them; they find it strange, yet when they start to do it, it's easier than they think.” “Even admitting to themselves that something isn't quite right, that there is another option to just grinning and bearing it, can be a breakthrough.”

CALM was launched in Manchester in 1997 as a pilot suicide prevention scheme that deliberately targeted young men.

In order to reach this demographic, the Department of Health enlisted the help of advertising and PR company Ogilvy and Mather to come up with a brand that would appeal to them. It was launched in Manchester because of the rising numbers of young male suicide in the area and in the north west of England in general. In 2006, the organisation became a charity and broadened its scope to London and added a national helpline. To date, it is the only national organisation that specifically reaches out to young men at risk of suicide.

“Symptoms of mental health issues can be a whole range of things,” says Ajax. “Being unable to get out of bed, feeling tired, being physically ill, feeling lonely or tearful for no reason. Sometimes it can be difficult to work out how, as men, we should behave and deal with every day stresses. In many relationships, the guy is the breadwinner and therefore takes the financial burden. He's in a 'looking after' role… not necessarily from an emotional standpoint, but as the rock of the family. Then, when things aren't going right… he loses his job, for example, and feels that he has lost his financial identity, all sorts of feelings can crop up… shame, helplessness, not quite knowing what to do. And if you haven't grown up being able to talk about such things you're going to internalise your feelings about them.”

It's something that David Exley, 64, is all too familiar with. James, mentioned at the beginning of this piece, is David's son. 'We knew James was struggling,' explains David. 'He had been separated from his wife for two years, and he was having financial difficulties, but he had a new partner with whom he had just had a baby. Whilst we knew he was going through a bad time, we had no idea he felt so bad. He left a note saying that he couldn't cope and that he was sorry.”

Exley's case is particularly tragic – 25 years ago, in almost identical circumstances; his brother Tim took his own life at the age of 32. “My thoughts were, and have been for a long time,” says David, “that if either James or Tim had rung somewhere for help, one or both of them would be alive today.”

During the period when his son was experiencing difficulties, David began training as a Samaritan – the nationwide confidential emotional support service – in order to be better able to help him. David now volunteers for the charity, taking calls at his local branch. This summer, he completed an amazing 7,876 mile ride around the UK on a motorbike to visit all 201 branches of the charity. “It was my way,” he tells me, “of doing something to raise awareness of the charity’s invaluable service and generate some much needed funds for them. Organisations such as the Samaritans provide a much-needed link for support. Someone to listen that could just save a life…”

This September, to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day, the government announced a new Suicide Prevention Strategy. The new strategy outlines six areas for action, which include reducing the risk of suicide in key high-risk groups, such as adult men aged under the age of 50. The strategy also aims to focus on supporting bereaved families and is backed by up to £1.5 million to fund new research. Statistics show that targeting help in the right places can bring about a reduction in suicides. In 2011, the Office of National Statistics published figures demonstrating that the numbers of suicides among young men on Merseyside had fallen by a massive 55 per cent, bringing it below the average for young men both in the north west and in the rest of England and Wales. CALM has been operating a targeted approach to young men in the area for the last ten years. It works with local clubs, communities, music and entertainment industries to promote its campaign to young men and provide them with local and national information. “We welcomed the news as a sign that our innovative and award-winning work is making a real difference amongst this traditionally ‘hard-to-reach’ group and is, literally, saving lives,” the charity said.

So what can we, as a community, do? Naturally, donating to charities such as CALM and the Samaritans is a huge help, but it may be even simpler than that. “The next time you see someone who seems a bit down, ask how they are,” suggests Ajax. “It sounds so simple, but often we don't do that –?and it's only when someone is off work because they're really depressed that we even realise something is wrong. Just asking how people are can help. And if someone says they're not feeling great, they don't have to talk to family or friends, they can ring our helpline, it's anonymous.” As a recent Samaritans campaign ‘U Can Cope’ highlights: There is always hope. There is always help.

Samaritans volunteers are available 24/7 to offer confidential support by phone: 08457 90 90 90 (UK), by email: jo@samaritans.org or face-to-face. See www.samaritans.org for your local branch. To donate to David’s quest to raise £10,000 visit: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/davidswayround
See www.thecalmzone.net for more information about CALM, which operates a free, confidential and anonymous helpline on 0808 802 5858 within London; outside London call 0800 585858. Text 07537 404717, start your first text ‘CALM1’ (this service only available within London at present).

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