When you look at suicide stats there’s a clanging message there

Ten years ago I got married, about a month before that I went on a stag do – my stag do to be precise. You probably have tawdry ideas about what happens on these things and you’re absolutely right, so you’ll be happy to know that we ticked a few of the necessary boxes, with nine guys (including me) going buck-wild in Berlin, doing all the things you’re supposed to do (but never speak of). In stag terms, nine people probably isn’t that many, but I’m an enigmatic guy, and that was the extent of my close male friendships – eight mates. Three from my school days, three from university, two from my life since then. The reason I’m thinking about this now is because not all of us made it. Of those eight pals, seven remain. We’re mostly in our mid-40s now, though Rich, my good university pal who I’d known since we were teenagers enjoying our first forays away from home, took his own life at the beginning of 2022. I’d spoken to him the day before it happened – and I’m pretty sure, though never entirely certain (how can you be?), that I wasn’t the catalyst. If anything, it’d been one of our brighter conversations in a while. He rang me because he had a TV job coming up and he asked if he could steal some ideas. I said that was fine, and duly gave him all the gold I could muster.

I’d always kept in pretty close contact with Rich, but like all friendships (particularly, you suspect, male ones) it ebbed and flowed. Sometimes we’d not speak for months, too caught up in work, relationships, parenthood. Then once in a while, we’d suddenly be entrenched in each other’s lives again, checking in. Realising that no matter how much the world turned, nor how much water went under the bridge, our relationship rarely deviated from what it was when we first met, with both of us playing to type – him a little too tightly wound, me a little too loose, but in both cases, all heightened in the name of getting a laugh. That’s who we were to each other, and by a certain point we were on a fairly steady program of quarterly hangouts, always in the same pubs, always in Soho. We’d start at The Blue Posts on Berwick Street and end at Bradley’s Spanish Bar on Hanway Street, pissed as newts and probably speaking in Spanish by that point too. We never changed the recipe.

But by the end of 2021 we were speaking with much greater frequency (probably weekly). Rich had come a cropper, and wasn’t ashamed to admit it. He was lost, struggling mentally, and keen to seek help, so we spoke, and spoke, and spoke, and spoke, and spoke. Sometimes we spoke around in circles, like we were trying to find the solution that would snap him out of his depression, we’d excavate and re-excavate the same plot of land, hoping to find something new, hoping to figure him out. But it didn’t happen, and when I got a message out of the blue from a shared friend asking me to give him a ring, deep down I knew what was coming.

A few months earlier, Rich had lost his job. His career until then, as far as I was concerned, had been impressive. He’d landed a dream gig in an industry he loved – he once told me he was secretly embarrassed of getting paid so handsomely – but at some point the milk soured a little, and following a stint of being signed off with stress he was let go. I don’t know the ins and outs of why that happened, but through dotting the dots from our conversations, it seems he’d become surplus to requirements. The industry had advanced and there wasn’t room for him anymore. He’d been popular, he’d been promoted up the ladder, but now he was made to feel unimportant. We spent hours discussing what he could do next, and the fact is, Rich could’ve done anything, but that wasn’t how he saw it. He couldn’t see a stable future, which I took it to mean that he couldn’t envisage how his work-life would pan out – perhaps that’s what he did mean at the time – and truthfully, I’m as much in the dark now about why he killed himself as I was then. I’m sure it’s the same with any suicide, that you’ll never truly know what took hold in that moment, or what dose of perceived clarity made it seem like the only plausible option.

But I do know that I miss my friend, that his wife misses her husband, that his daughters miss their dad. I do know that, statistically, men in their 40s are the most vulnerable to suicide. And from where I’m sitting, I also know that we’re not making the world a secure place for those who don’t just crave stability, but need it. I’ve been a freelance writer (a ridiculous way to make a living) for twenty years and counting, so I’ve adapted to constant instability, my resting state leaves space for a simmering sense of anxious doom. But that’s my choice, my silly decision, and at least when I ‘suffer’ for my ‘art’ (very much in inverted commas) I can take some solace in knowing that I’m the one accountable. But when I think about Rich – and not just him but plenty of other people I know who are also struggling, though hopefully to a lesser extent – I wonder why we haven’t created a working world where you don’t have to look over your shoulder, where you can stutter or fall behind, but with roots deep enough, and enough credit in the bank to reward you with the time to learn and evolve on the job, and to feel that you’re valued – even though you’re daring to do something so heinous as to grow older.

It’s a basic fundamental of life, that we’re all in it together. So why this constant onus on ‘out with the old and in with the new’? Because while tech advances might wait for no man, humans can. Our working lives are going to get longer, so at some point we’re going to have to start valuing people over production, people over profit. I’m not blaming the world for what happened to my friend, that would be too reductive, too loaded with assumptions that I can’t sincerely back up. I’m just saying that when you look at the stats, there’s a clanging message in there that perhaps we need to heed.

RIP old pal. Our shared memories are just mine now, but fucking hell they’re fantastic.

3 Responses to When you look at suicide stats there’s a clanging message there

  1. Wendy Rigg says:

    What an insightful and heartbreaking piece of writing Josh. My brother lost a work colleague and a close friend to suicide (one in his 40s and one in his 60s) – within months of each other this year. They were both people I knew too – one I was at school with. I just couldn’t believe it, but both must have been struggling for years. They were friends too and went within three months of each other. Just tragic. I went to Caitlin Moran’s book launch talk ‘What about men?’ and she’s dealing with this kind of stuff in the book. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend – and it sounds like you were a really good mate to him. There’s a bigger piece here for one of the papers Josh – you should pitch it to Dame Marge and she can get it to the right person.

  2. Dave Moynihan says:

    Beautiful piece Josh. Hope you’re doing great

  3. Jim says:

    Josh – not sure if you remember me from my visits to Bristol to doss on Rich’s floor and stay up all night laughing and listening to music… but I wanted to thank you for writing this. I am not sure I could do it but it is so important that people do so again thank you for being able to share something so incredibly sad with such strong, honest and powerful words.

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