Opening up: the first step is the steepest

Suicide is the leading cause of death in young Irish males. Why are they so reluctant to talk?

Counselling services within universities have been put under severe pressure recently, with many colleges reporting waiting lists of up to six weeks. With one in five young people in Ireland suffering a mental health problem, this is not surprising.

There’s a lot of pressure on young people, and a lot of change and upheaval in their lives. Secondary school students are asked to decide their futures while preparing for the Leaving Cert, while college students are faced with a seemingly unending stream of assignments before exams are even on the agenda. Particularly for college students, this can often be on top of worries caused by being away from home, managing money, or even just trying to fit in to a large community.

Dr Declan Aherne, head of counselling at the University of Limerick, says "Big strapping young farmers [come to college] and they're just falling apart, because they're feeling so stressed and so vulnerable. Within a couple of weeks, they begin to become new people because they realise there's nothing wrong with them; they're just feeling the normal struggles of living, which is not easy."

Financial concerns are among the biggest issues for young people at the moment, says Maeve DeSay, students’ union welfare officer at UCD. With college costs rising, and chances of getting a part-time job decreasing, this can be a huge worry and has forced many students to drop out. Welfare officers around the country “are very aware of the financial pressure people are under, and [of the] sense of no direction and purpose that comes with unemployment,” says DeSay.

While we have a major youth mental health issue, the demand on our support systems is not all negative, as Aherne points out. “We’re the victims of our own success because we’ve been promoting it, making it accessible for so long.” Despite a focus on promoting support services and positive mental health on campuses, when you look at the statistics, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these campaigns are missing a large target group: young men.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for young Irish men, with 21.95 deaths by suicide per 100,000 of population for 15-24 year olds, between 2008 and 2010. This compares with 5.1 deaths for females, according to the National Office for Suicide Prevention. Ireland’s suicide rate is below the European average, but the figures for young men are particularly high by international comparison.

Gavin O'Donovan, who began to address his depression while a student at University College Cork, feels the differing societal expectations on men are a large part of the reason for this disparity. "I needed help, but I didn't know how to look for help, or express that I needed help . . . Men don't talk about their feelings, real men don't cry, and showing emotions is girly. Men are supposed to be big, strong, nothing-gets-you-down people, when in reality it's the exact opposite."

Reaching out

Beyond simply an expectation to appear strong, men often find it difficult to reach out to others about their problems. Aherne says: “Men tend to develop primarily around their individual, standalone, independent position . . . and end up finding themselves more isolated and alone.”

Ian Mooney, a final-year science student at Trinity College Dublin, found that when he tried to seek help for his depression in 2012. “I didn’t really want to burden anyone with the whole thing,” he says. “I knew other people had their own set of problems going on, so I didn’t feel I should put my problems on their plate as well.”

This idea is common among young men, according to DeSay. While running a Please Talk campaign asking students what they would say to a friend who approached them with a mental health issue, she found male students were very willing to support their friends, but didn’t feel others would do the same for them.

She says: “It appears that it is not that men don’t want to support one another, but that they lack the confidence within themselves to open up to other men for fear of their reactions and how it affects their status as a ‘strong male’.”

More support

Both O’Donovan and Mooney believe more focused support is necessary to help men reach out, and O’Donovan emphasises the need for a societal shift in thinking.

If more men were to speak about their mental health issues, Mooney feels it would “trigger a chain reaction, and more and more people will start to open up. It’s just about taking that first step.”

Aherne agrees that taking the first steps in asking for help are key to reducing the rate of male mental health issues and, ultimately, the rate of youth male suicide.

“Traditionally, men taking their own lives, were men who didn’t come to counselling . . . The guys who come, they might initially be a little bit awkward about it, it might take them about six months of walking up and down the corridor to take the big step to come in, but once they’ve made that step, they’re fine. They’re actually as good as women in terms of talking and sharing. They’re just relieved to offload and express their feelings.”