Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

The men are not alright: It's time for honest talk about men, mental health and suicide

This winter, my father took his life. He suffered in silence, we missed the warning signs, and he took the only way out that he knew.

Why are so many men taking their lives?

Reverend Robert Cooke lost his 75-year-old father to suicide last year. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

My father took his life just over six months ago. He was 75 years old and had been struggling with depression for three months.

Actually, it would be better to say it was a lifetime struggle with depression and anxiety that led to his death.

Cooke's father took his life last September. (CBC)

To be even more accurate, it was his inability to talk about his struggle with mental illness that led to his death in his woodshed on that fateful late summer day.

He suffered in silence, we missed the warning signs, and he took the only way out that he knew.

Why are so many men taking their lives?

My dad came from a generation where no one talked about mental illness or suicide. Men in particular showed no vulnerability or signs of struggle, psychological or physical. To show any emotion was to appear weak, and real men were not weak.

I never saw my father cry. I don't remember any physical signs of love from him, like hugs and kisses.

'It was his inability to talk about his struggle with mental illness that led to his death,' writes Cooke, right, about his father, left. (Submitted by Robert Cooke)

In fact, my father didn't tell me he loved me until I left home when I was 20, although our relationship improved greatly as I got older.

My experience of my father is not out of the ordinary. And sadly, neither is my father's suicide.

In Canada, the suicide rate is three times higher for men than it is for women. And though some experts now use words like "epidemic" to describe suicide rates among men, we haven't figured out how to talk about it.

Why are so many men taking their lives?

A dangerous trend

When my father died, I was approached by a lot of men — men who said they'd been having dark thoughts, men who said they didn't know where to turn, or how to talk.

I think an underlying issue in male suicide rates is what I call a crisis of masculinity. Men of all ages are struggling with the question of what it means to be a man.

Gender roles have shifted in the workplace and at home. Women are rightly demanding equality and fair treatment. Families now tend to have a much more egalitarian sharing of household and childcare responsibilities.

In the workplace, the recent #MeToo and Time's Up movements point to the long overdue end of the reign of male privilege. And the gender lines themselves have become increasingly blurred. Gone is the binary and purely biological understanding of gender.

Cooke, right, is shown here with his father, left. (Submitted by Robert Cooke)

Meanwhile, marketers still typecast men as rugged individuals, the strong silent type, who only seem to be interested in pickup trucks, what's for supper and cold beer. We're still carrying the baggage of a traditional understanding of masculinity into an unfamiliar future.

And I don't think we're adjusting well.

The rise of contentious figures like U.S. President Donald Trump and University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson are evidence of the unrest.

Both Trump and Peterson tap into the undercurrent of anger and disillusionment that men are experiencing right now. It's a disconcerting and — I think — dangerous trend.

Talking is healing

So what's the solution? Well, I don't believe there are any easy answers. But I do believe in conversation. Talking is healing.

And here, I'm speaking directly to the men who may be reading this. We have to do better at talking about how we feel. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We have to learn to be OK with not being OK, and see that we're not alone in feeling that way.

And we have to teach our boys that it's OK to cry, feel sad and talk about how they feel.

It matters.

And in many cases — like my father's — it's a matter of life and death.

So let's talk.