A national study has found men are more likely to discuss suicidal thinking with trusted acquaintances like family, friends or partners than health clinicians.
The research by not-for-profit the Black Dog Institute aims to identify ways to prevent male suicides, which account for about 75 per cent of the total Australian figure.
Lead researcher and clinical psychologist Doctor Michael Player said the study showed many men wanted help, but were not getting it.
“Men actually do want help,” he said.
“Unfortunately we don’t have a really good dialogue or opportunity for men to talk about their mental health.
“This goes back to the way we have been brought up.
“We haven’t had really good role models that have shown adequate ways to deal with mental health issues.”
As part of the institute’s study, 35 males who had attempted to take their own life within the last six to 18 months, as well as 47 friends and family members of men in that situation, were interviewed face-to-face.
The interviewees were from a variety of urban and regional settings nationwide.
There was also an Australia-wide online survey undertaken as part of the qualitative research.
“We were looking at how to interrupt a suicide attempt, what helped and what kept men safe,” Dr Player said.
Non-judgemental, honest discussion works best
“There is clear evidence that comes from the paper – that men want to accept help” he said.
“But it has got to be from the right person, being that person that they trust and respect.”
Dr Player, who is a clinical psychologist in the Sydney public health system, said there was a fine balance between helping and being invasive.
“But if you notice something, you have to ask a question,” he said.
“We often found that the trigger for an attempt was something in isolation that was actually quite minor but it was just part of a train of stresses or unpleasant events over a period of time.
“You have to be looking at the chronicity of someone’s distressed mood, isolation and they’re coping strategies like avoidance and numbing behaviours.”
Compounding the problem, he said many friends and family members were reluctant or even scared to ask the men in their lives about thoughts of suicide.
“Not being judgmental, being honest and open and calling it what it is helps,” Dr Player said.
“Just being direct and often opening the space for a male to talk will be enough to illicit a positive response.”
Dr Player said the men surveyed reported feeling significantly better after talking about their suicidal thinking, as opposed to feeling at a greater risk of self harm.
“Ninety-two per cent of the people that were in the study actually had improved mood after actually taking part in the study,” he said.
“It wasn’t a downer that made people depressed, so that was a really positive finding that we hope is translated to other research.
“Everyone underlined that you just keep persisting, even if it seems the man doesn’t want you to.”
Hospital, GP screening for suicide recommended
The Black Dog Institute said the study highlighted how much work was needed to better target programs for men at risk of suicide.
Dr Player said men often displayed signs of unhelpful coping like drinking, violence, drug use and other self harm.
“Men tend to convert their emotional pain into physical pain which is something they feel more adept to deal with,” he said.
“Men often give subtle warning signs, and they tend to be self-destructive warning signs like externalising behaviours like isolation and more irritability.
“So we need to screen for self-inflicted injuries or injuries as a result of risk taking or self harm or things like that.”
Dr Player said the findings suggested men needed to be more proactively screened by hospitals and health authorities.
“We need to be more proactive about screening men for suicide when they present at a GP or Emergency Departments with these externalising sort of behaviours,” he said.
Suicide prevention not ‘popular’ cause
Dr Player expressed frustration about the lack of national discussion about suicide prevention, compared to other major social issues like domestic and family violence.
Unfortunately we get a few high-profile suicides and there is a bit of a spotlight shown on the area for a short period of time, but it doesn’t seem to hold people’s interest,” he said.
“The suicide rate is double what the road toll is, yet we don’t have ads on the television as we do have for road deaths.”
Beyond Blue’s Movember Foundation donations provided the $100,000 funding for the qualitative research.
He said the study was published in open-source journal PLOS1, as it offered a quick review and publishing timeline and was available to everyone.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 25 June 2015.