by Dr. Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor, Psychologist/Educator, Trinidad and Tobago

Suicides affect every family which has lost a loved one, in myriad ways that last a lifetime. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a steady increase in the number of boys and men who end their own lives prematurely. With increasing public awareness of mental illness, it is a known fact that while women may experience more suicidal thinking (ideation) and make attempts on their own lives, men are far more likely to die by suicide, as high as five times the rate of women. Men use more lethal means such as guns, poisons, and hanging and may have easier access to these means. It is interesting to note that studies show that some men are also more likely to have used alcohol or engaged in substance use before taking their lives. Drinking can deepen depression and increase impulsive and risky behaviours; alcoholism is a known risk factor for suicide.

Mental illness in boys and men is a societal issue globally and across many cultures, as they seldom admit that they feel depressed or have a problem that is too overwhelming to manage on their own. Men find it difficult to ask for help or want to talk it out with others. In Trinidad and Tobago, persons have reported that male relatives have taken their lives due to financial issues and “being hounded by banks for repayment of loans,” the banks’ so-called customer-care disappearing in a crisis pandemic where there are frequent job losses and persons are unable to meet their loan obligations. Mothers have stated that their young boys talk of suicide, especially those who were not doing too well just before their examinations. One mother called the hotline at 9:20 p.m. one night, pleading for help as her 11-year-old son had told her that he wanted to kill himself and that he didn’t want to live any more. At 11 years old, what could be the societal pressures that made this young boy speak of death so early in a life not yet lived?

Thus, the recent Trinidad and Tobago Police Services’ (TTPS) statistics on suicidal deaths in this society that were collated by the Director of MindWise, Maria Divina O’Brien, support the research that mental illness among males is significantly high. The culture of silence prevails for men and boys who are encouraged to be “strong” and to not admit that they’re struggling to cope with challenges. From January – August 2021, we have lost 86 persons to suicide, 77 boys and men aged 9 - 60, and 9 women aged 26 - 60 years. The youngest boy to die by suicide was 9 years old and the youngest girl to attempt suicide was 11 years old. During this same period last year 2020, 80% of suicidal deaths were boys and men, this figure increasing to an alarming 89% for this group in 2021.

We must shift the cultural paradigm of silence and enforced isolation and make it easier for boys and men to talk about how they are feeling and to let them know that talking about feelings is not a sign of weakness but emotional resilience. Many may just need a listening ear, a friendly smile and reassuring words so that they can make it through another day. One 48-year-old repeat/frequent caller with a history of mental illness, who had made the rounds of all the counsellors on the phones, matter-of-factly said to me: “I know what my problem is, you know. I just need you to listen – no-one else seems to care.”

Risk factors for suicide are often related to family or work and the current economic downturn with increases in unemployment and financial loss. Social isolation and difficult social relationships add to these risks. It must be noted that while these risk factors are common to many persons, there are those boys and men who are more resilient and able to cope with the stressors of life in more successful ways. Coping strategies are key and many boys and men are able to manage when there are protective factors in place such as family support, community-based interventions through church groups, schools, NGOs and available tele-helplines.

Suicide is preventable. Fathers, brothers, grandfathers, teachers, church leaders and friends must model healthy self-care behaviours for our young boys and men. Speak openly about mental health challenges and provide solutions and positive affirmations. Be a pillar of support and a guiding light in someone’s darkness. My motto again: Each one must reach one!