In the aftermath of yet another high profile suicide from the world of entertainment, it’s natural to let a lazy assumption rear its ugly head again: that there’s only a certain kind of person that suffers from depression, and ultimately succumbs to it. I don’t need to name any celebrities that have died from depression to call to mind an image of the tortured genius, weighed down by a gift that also ultimately turned out to be a curse.
For generations there’s been this uneasy relationship between suicide and artistry. The tropes are numerous, from the empowerment of the classical hero (or heroine), to the tragic romanticism of Romeo and Juliet, right up to the very Hollywood notion that it’s better to burn twice as bright for half as long. It recurs time and time again in the media, often framed with the incongruous assertion that someone smart and successful should be immune to the black dog. There’s a lurid glory often taken in the details, with several news sites and posthumous books recently courting controversy by transgressing the Samaritans’ recommendation on suicide reporting.
Perhaps originally these narratives were created as a coping mechanism; a way for the everyday man and woman to understand the reasoning behind these violent acts, and articulate the abstract sense of grief they were feeling, while also maintaining a safe distance. Suicide seems to become this grand and poetic final flourish, existing in a realm reserved only for the glitterati.
As with so many stories we tell ourselves though, this can be a very dangerous path to tread. Because suicide isn’t just something that can only happen to other people, and there certainly isn’t any kind of glamour attached to it. Depression affects so-called ‘regular’ folk just as frequently as those in the spotlight.
And it isn’t just the celebrity side of artistry that suicide is traditionally attached. It’s also connected with this more general notion of intelligence; that only the more cerebral can be affected by the existential weight of depression. It’s an odd kind of elitism that almost says only people of a certain intellectual level have the right to be depressed.
I guess it plays into our rational human need to understand the reasons behind an act we can’t always relate to. You look at a complex character like Robin Williams or Chris Cornell and it’s easy to imagine the sort of emotional maelstrom going on inside their head.
But this bizarre sort of intellectual snobbery is not only unhelpful, it’s also wildly inaccurate. In statistics published earlier this year (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-39303187), which analysed cases from 2011 to 2015, it was actually in fact men working in the lowest-skilled occupations who are most at risk of suicide in the UK.
These shocking figures show that construction workers die from suicide at a rate of three times higher than the average man. And not far behind them are drivers, electricians, machine operators, builders, farmers, plant workers and so on.
That doesn’t quite fit in with what we tell ourselves about the sad clown or the tortured poet. These are men who we write off as brash and superficial and somehow lacking the capacity to feel troubled. Yet in the construction and building trades alone, these statistics show that we lose more than 200 men a year to suicide. The irony of it being an industry so concerned with preventing (physical) head trauma shouldn’t be lost on anyone.
More research is obviously needed to try to get at the root causes, but reading other articles and social media posts, many workers within the industry cite the pressure caused by low pay and lack of job security, as well as the loneliness than can come from this kind of vocation.
The hyper-masculine culture attached to the building trade must also be a factor. You’d hope that the notion of asking for help being a weakness would’ve been superseded, but it’s not always the case. And it’s all too easy to just fall back on the two most dangerous words in the male vocabulary – ‘man up’ – to combat any sort of struggle or failing in a traditional alpha male environment. It might sound glib, but if you’re on a site, the guy next to you literally putting up a wall, might also be putting up a wall in his mind every day.
To quote Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England: “people who die from suicide are usually not in contact with health services and often push themselves through in silence as their ability to cope deteriorates.”
This makes me think that the workplace is an increasingly important place to reach out to people who you think might be struggling. The reality is that we spend more time at work than at home, and someone with mental health issues might need your support right now on your site or in your office. The warning signs don’t flash brightly, but quietness and withdrawal are certainly red flags.
So I would urge everyone to take responsibility and try to reach out to your co-workers, even the guys who aren’t reading The Guardian or able to quote Faust. Because mental health needs to be taken as seriously as physical health. You wouldn’t be happy to fight a fire or scale a scaffold with someone with a broken leg, so don’t just let depression or another mental illness skulk under the radar while you share a brew. Reach out, create an environment of positive support and you might save a life.