Suicide is the number one killer of young men in Australia. For Asanga, it cost him a mate. Find out why Asanga wants to end the stigma of men sharing their feelings and get blokes to open up about the tough stuff.
This story contains themes of suicide, loss and mental ill health. If these subjects raise any concerns for you, please contact the relevant support services listed here.
Before a mate went missing, I thought mental health was an issue that we talked about in the silos of medicine, counselling services and Beyond Blue case studies. I thought a cheery “well mate” or “good dude” to a “how are you going, man?” was a sign that all was well. I thought that if a friend needed support or someone to talk to, they knew you would be there.
Then we couldn’t find that friend. The guy who always had a smile on his face, who laughed at our incessant banter and seemed not to take life too seriously. Scholarship recipient. Prolific volunteer. Graduate at a prestigious professional services firm. He died by suicide. It was a severe shock.
Tears rolling down my cheeks, I exasperated to other mates about the ‘what ifs’. What if we’d had a single conversation? Told him, “things were going to be alright” and gave him a big hug?
It’s an experience that woke me up to the fact that looks and first impressions were deceiving. Things were not always okay. Despite the strong emotions, it’s important to remember that these issues are complex and don’t often have a single solution. While conversations aren’t a guaranteed fix, talking is an important first step.
As men and boys, we have long evaded conversations about mental health and derided them as too ‘touchy’ or not something we talk about. Yet suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 15 to 54 in Australia and it’s three times more common in males than females. Males are also much less likely to seek out mental health support than other groups with 72% of males estimated to not seek help.
Growing up in school and strengthened by dominant media narratives, we’re often fed an idolised conception of a ‘typical Aussie bloke’. The caucasian tough guy that doesn’t show emotions, is good at sport and gets the girls. We rank ourselves to a role model of masculinity and success that often doesn’t look like us, share our faith, interests or sexual orientation.
For far too long, vulnerability and talking about our emotions have been a weakness rather than a strength. We have been fighting a prevailing stigma that seeking mental health support is not what a ‘real man’ does. Something which is compounded in cultural communities that see mental health as a Western creation or simply a concept that does not exist.
It’s time that talking about your feelings, having a cry if you need, and seeking support doesn’t make you any less a ‘real man’.
Acceptance from our mates is a starting point for flipping the script on the outdated thinking of what it means to be a man. Within this we need to acknowledge that we all don’t have the same support structures and certain groups can be more vulnerable than others. Indigenous Australians have suicide rates which are six times those of non-Indigenous Australians, with the Kimberley region in Western Australia having one of the highest suicide rates in the world. International students also often fly under the radar too. They face pressure in settling into a new home far away from family, struggling to establish genuine friendships and balancing the weight of familial expectations.
While there are limits to what we can do as friends, being there for a mate is one of the most powerful things that we can do in looking out for each other.
How to bring up the conversation
If you’ve noticed something different about a mate, whether that be withdrawal from social events, altered behaviour on social media or sensing they’re a little on edge, this can be a prompt to mention that you’ve noticed something different recently.
A question along the lines of “You’ve not quite seemed yourself recently. Is everything okay?” can help open the conversation. Keep in mind that our default response to a check-in is often “Going well!” or “All fine”, even if it doesn’t reflect how we are truly feeling, so don’t be afraid to ask twice if needed.
Opening up and having the conversation
Before having a potentially difficult or emotional conversation with a mate, make sure you’re feeling okay yourself and are in a state of mind to handle anything distressing that comes up. Remember that you are not expected to play the role of a counsellor or a doctor, just be yourself.
If a mate starts opening up about what they have been experiencing, give them all the space they need to talk. Listen without interrupting and don’t jump to providing solutions or advice; often we just need the space to talk through how we’ve been feeling.
Acknowledge what he’s feeling without judgement or diminishing what he’s going through. You don’t need to have all the answers but walk through some options or resources you know of and flag the availability of professional help if necessary.
Checking back in on your mate
One of the most important and powerful things we can do is to check back in with them after having had a difficult conversation. Suggest catching up again in person sometime soon after the initial conversation, or if that can’t work out, drop him a message or call. Remind him that you’ve got his back and are there if he needs. This simple gesture is enormous in making someone feel valued.
If you’re concerned that your mate is at risk of suicide or immediate harm, suggest local crisis lines or contact emergency services. If you believe their life to be in immediate danger, please call 000.
Want specific prompts about how to approach a conversation with a mate about their mental health? The team at Movember have developed this handy guide.