It’s the leading cause of death for British men aged 20 to 49, preying even on the successful and famous, yet until recently suicide was one of our biggest taboos. Jo Macfarlane discovers how speaking up can be vital to those who are struggling
Eighteen months ago, Roman Kemp found himself alone and sobbing on the floor of his house. In that moment, he felt so worthless that he contemplated ending his life.
It’s a disturbing image, not least because Roman is only 28 and has a glittering radio career as the outwardly sprightly host of Capital FM’s breakfast show. But as Roman – whose father Martin Kemp was in 1980s band Spandau Ballet – points out today, depression has no obvious uniform, particularly if you are a man.
That night, Roman’s life was saved by his mother Shirlie (formerly of pop duo Pepsi & Shirlie), who rushed to his side. And it was his best friend Joe Lyons, the talented producer on his radio show, who helped to pick him up afterwards.
Joe was ‘always laughing’, Roman says, ‘the life and soul of the party – if he could remember it’. The two were known as a pair, as inseparable as brothers, constantly imagining the pranks they could play on the nation’s celebrities to make their listeners laugh.
But in August last year, while the show was on air, Roman and the team were given the crushing news that Joe – completely out of the blue – had taken his own life.
‘I just went numb. It was the worst feeling I’ve had in my life,’ Roman recalls. ‘Everyone loved him and he meant absolutely everything to me. I don’t remember the last conversation that we had the previous day; only that it was totally normal.
‘But underneath it all, he was struggling and no one had any idea. I can never make sense of that.
‘For a long time afterwards, I was angry. I thought, “How could you do this to your family? Why didn’t you just ring me?” And I’ll never know the answer. I’ll never be able to ask him.’
As Roman knows, all too sadly, there are few answers to be had. Male suicide has, for decades, been a mounting and complex issue in the UK. It remains a startling fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men aged 20 to 49 across the country – a toll far greater than car accidents, cancer and heart disease. Since the mid-90s, three quarters of those who take their own lives every year have been men, and the numbers are gradually ticking upwards. It’s particularly acute for men in their 40s and 50s.
Yet, until recently, talking about this devastating phenomenon – which tears thousands of families apart – has remained largely taboo. A significant part of the problem is that men, far more than women, are reluctant to admit they’re struggling and are far less likely to seek support. A 2017 poll found 84 per cent of men ‘bottle up’ their emotions, while nearly half (44 per cent) suppress how they feel at least once a day.
Samaritans point out, too, that when men do contact a GP, they are more likely than women to be prescribed medication, which just treats the symptoms, rather than be referred to talking therapies, which can address underlying issues.
But there are attempts to bring the problem into sharper, more public focus. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently spoke to the family of a 12-year-old boy with severe anxiety, whose life was saved after he sent a text to mental health support service Shout, which was set up with funding from the couple’s Royal Foundation. ‘It’s every parent’s nightmare,’ the Duchess said.
Pop singer Will Young has spoken openly about the recent death of his twin brother Rupert, following years of mental-health issues and alcoholism, and former Love Island star Dr Alex George has also movingly described the impact the suicide of his 19-year-old brother Llŷr has had.
The grief has lingered like ‘a little black box in my head’, he has said. ‘Every now and then, you go to the shelf, you open the box – and everything comes out. That’s when things are tough.’
The A&E doctor, who has 1.9 million followers on Instagram, was recently appointed youth mental-health ambassador to the government. He revealed earlier this month that, thanks to pressure from clinical professionals and charities, Boris Johnson had committed £79 million to accelerate the rollout of mental health support teams in schools. Posting the news on his Instagram page, he said he was ‘so happy that we are making positive moves in the right direction’, adding: ‘The work doesn’t end here, this is just the start.’
‘You know, my brother took his life without telling anyone,’ he said in one interview. ‘Why? Because I think he probably felt ashamed that he felt that way. If he’d asked for help, would he still be alive? Maybe.’
It’s for precisely this reason, too, that Roman has chosen to make a poignant documentary about male suicide in the UK. The BBC film, Our Silent Emergency, aired last Tuesday and features Roman talking openly for the first time about his own mental-health issues, and addressing Joe’s sudden death.
‘Making the film was, selfishly, therapy for me,’ Roman says, clearly still raw. ‘I met a group of lads in Reading who, after their friend’s suicide, now have a rule where they ask each other, “Are you OK?” twice during a conversation – to give that person the opportunity to talk. I love that. It’s so simple. ‘The onus can’t be only on the person suffering. The hardest thing is to talk – the embarrassment, the fear – so give someone that chance. Really listen.
‘I want someone else, having watched this, to be the hero to their own friend that I wished I could have been to mine.’
Yet there is a long-standing cultural stigma around men, particularly those in traditionally working-class areas, confronting their feelings. Dan McGurk lost his younger brother Calum to suicide in 2016. Just 27, Calum, from South Tyneside, was hugely popular and had a good job as an engineer. He had endured a difficult relationship break-up which forced him to sell his home at a loss and move back in with his parents. But Dan will never know why Calum chose to end his life during an overnight work trip. ‘You blame yourself for never seeing it,’ says Dan, 34. ‘Trying to talk about your feelings in the pubs where we drink in the North East is unheard of, really. In working-class places, men just don’t do that – and it’s not easy to simply flick a switch.
‘It’s had such a huge impact on us as a family. Our parents will never be the same. I’ll never forget the noise our Mam made when I told her Calum had gone.
‘But at the funeral, so many people we went to school with admitted they had thought about suicide. It was frightening. We need to invest far more money in men’s mental health.’
Roman’s documentary comes almost a year after the first coronavirus lockdown. Charities such as Samaritans and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) know that Covid measures have increased the risk factors for male suicide – including isolation, financial insecurity, job loss and relationship problems.
Dr Elizabeth Scowcroft, head of research and evaluation at Samaritans, said the charity had received a ‘significant’ increase in the number of men calling about loneliness and isolation.
‘Men have been stripped of their usual coping mechanisms and the things they use for support – gyms, pubs, sports venues, offices – even if they don’t realise they use them for support,’ she said. ‘Men calling our helpline have told our volunteers that they put on a brave face and don’t want to be a burden.’
There is no evidence yet that the pandemic has increased the number of suicides. No official data covers this period: the most recent, from the Office for National Statistics, refers to deaths registered in 2019.
These figures show the death rate is the highest it has been in nearly 20 years, with 4,303 men – 83 every week – taking their own lives, a ten per cent rise compared with 1999.
Simon Gunning, chief executive of CALM, says calls to the charity’s crisis line increased by 40 per cent during the pandemic, while traffic to the website by 18- to 24-year-olds more than doubled.
‘Maybe some of it actually works?’ he says. ‘It’s not just what we’re doing. Lots of people have changed the mental-health agenda and made it easier to talk about all of this.’
In the North West of England, crisis charity The Martin Gallier Project has saved more than 2,500 lives since last February – 65 per cent of them men. It was set up by Jessica Gallier in memory of her father, who took his own life four years ago, aged 55.
‘We’re seeing a lot of young men now who feel worthless,’ says Jessica, 30. ‘They’re existing, not living. A lot of it comes down to “being a man”, what we perceive that to be, and the pressure to keep it up.
‘Many can’t identify what emotion they’re dealing with, and yet we’re expecting them to rationalise those emotions.’
Jessica has sought alternative solutions to the problem after her father, who was alcoholic, homeless and living in his car, couldn’t be saved despite contact with the authorities. ‘His problems were just bigger than him. He would detox but refused to do the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings afterwards, or anything that involved talking. It was, “I don’t need that – I’m a man.” He’d openly talk about suicide. But we didn’t know what to do with that information.
‘There were so many opportunities to prevent his death had we, as a family, and us, as a society, understood more about human nature, suicide and mental health.’
Jessica says few people having a suicidal crisis have mental-health problems. Instead, many simply become overwhelmed and can’t see another way out.
The Project encourages callers to stall their suicide bid while a team works to ease their underlying problems, whether financial or emotional. There is a ‘man cave’ where men come together to play pool, try yoga or learn to cook and, ultimately, end up talking.
‘We’ll get them to make their own decision that there’s another way. The fact I can do this for strangers, and couldn’t for my own dad, does sting. But each life I save here mitigates a little bit of the guilt I feel, and a little bit of that pain.’
Everyone agrees earlier intervention is key. Samaritans say support could be offered at known trigger points, such as after losing a job.
‘Opportunities are being missed,’ says Dr Scowcroft. ‘We’re really keen on suicide prevention not being an issue just at crisis point – we should be intervening earlier and supporting people to cope in difficult times, giving them the tools to support themselves and others, rather than waiting for people to reach the point where they are really struggling.’
Roman believes it should start even earlier, in schools, which is why the additional government funding could prove so effective. ‘We need to arm the next generation to fight against their own terrible thoughts. We can’t stop them from happening, and to an extent they’re normal. But I never had one lesson telling me how to deal with my brain if it starts telling me I’m worth nothing.
‘We need to stop being ashamed and scared.’
‘Telling the doctor “I want to kill myself” saved my life’
In the summer of 2019, Kevin Hingley (right) had started a new job he loved as a digital manager, and was buying a flat with his girlfriend.
But one day at work, with no history of mental health problems, the 33-year-old had ‘these horrific feelings of panic and helplessness, and feeling like a failure’.
The smallest task felt impossible. He walked out, occupied by thoughts of ending his life. ‘It was underpinned by this desire to not feel like that any more, by whatever means possible,’ he said.
But instead, he did the hardest thing he’d ever done – and walked into A&E, telling staff he wanted to kill himself, after recalling reading that suicide was classed as an emergency.
It was the start of a longer road to recovery. Kevin was referred for psychological therapy, diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and took three months off work.
‘The traditional view of suicide is that it’s someone with money problems or going through grief, but the truth is more complex.
‘If I hadn’t read about suicide and A&E I wouldn’t be here today. We need much more information like that out there.
‘I feel more like a man for having talked about how I feel. I own it now. Our brains can all break, regardless of our sex.’
WHERE TO FIND HELP IN A CRISIS
- In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted any time of day or night, 365 days a year, on 116 123 or by email: email@example.com
- The CALM helpline, open 5pm to midnight daily, is 0800 585858, or chat to their trained helpline staff online at thecalmzone.net/help/webchat
- Text SHOUT to 85258 for free, confidential support, 24/7
- Call 999 if you, or someone else, is in immediate danger
Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency is available now on BBC iPlayer