It is a terrible reality that men and some women who serve protector roles in society sometimes take their own lives. Some people have called it a crisis forcing first response organizations to take seriously the mental health of their employees. Up to this point the focus has been on particular workplace exposures or personal stressors like financial strain or martial break-up as causal.
But, we can’t seem to have the other conversation about the premature deaths of mostly white male adults in North America. Are there things about masculinity - what it means to be a man - that may not be working? Maybe, adherence to stoicism, emotional suppression, adrenaline soaked, alpha-minded competitive behaviours may have something to do with it. Training and value systems in the military, police, and other first response organizations promote this version of manhood – a form of extended adolescence - even as they begin to discuss appropriate mental health.
We may be in the midst of a clash of value systems around maleness in these organizations. Most of the men that I continue to treat tell me that they are ‘caged up emotionally with no outlets.’ Unacceptable outlets like physical prowess and aggression, harassment, drinking parties, and carousing have not been replaced with safe alternatives to decompress - to lower one’s guard and face human reactions of distress, outrage, despair, or guilt. Organizational bureaucrats have heard the public’s outcry and criticisms but they have yet to address the problem fully. The message continues to be denied among various managers, despite public statements to the contrary. First responders don’t dare risk vulnerability in their workplaces because it is not safe yet. They continue to serve in silence.
In terms of addressing first responder suicides, the real challenge will hinge on how far managers and bureaucrats will go to humanize their workplaces. The realities of financial bottom lines, organizational priorities, managing liabilities, and adherence to old training and management policies present formidable obstacles.
In the meantime, first responders may be left to re-evaluate notions of manhood passed down from their own fathers or the version promoted within their organizations. They may have to find alterative models outside of their immediate workplaces of what it means to be good men and women.
Personal vulnerability and humaneness cannot be erased no matter how much body armour one wears.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.