Persuading troubled young men to talk about their feelings and prevent suicides requires a subtle approach. Jeremy Dunning reports on a scheme gaining plaudits on Merseyside
The stereotype of the young British male is someone who would rather bottle up his unhappiness or turn to alcohol than admit to a perceived weakness. Too few men turn to their friends or partner, let alone go to a GP.
Unsurprisingly, suicide rates for men aged 15 to 44 are the highest of any group and three times that of women of the same age.
One campaign that is showing signs of success in tackling the problem is The Campaign Against Living Miserably (Calm), which is targeted at men aged 15 to 35 nationally as well as in regional zones. Unusually for such drives, it is not seen as a health service.
Calm’s offer is help, information and advice through a phone and web service as well as links to other services.
The campaign was launched as a series of regional pilots by the Department of Health in Manchester in December 1997. It was then rolled out to Merseyside in 1999, Cumbria and later Luton and Bedfordshire.
Statistically, suicide rates have tended to be higher in the North West, though the variance across regions is slight.
Of the pilots only the Merseyside project is still operating. The only other working “Calmzone” is in east Lancashire.
Since the Merseyside pilot’s establishment the suicide rate in Liverpool for young men aged 15 to 34 has fallen from 23 per 100,000 population in 1999-2001 to 14 per 100,000 in 2006-8.
Co-ordinator Simon Howes says it is impossible to know what part Calmzone has played in this, but the reduction is significant enough for commissioners to continue funding the project.
It works by linking up with events and businesses popular with young men. This could mean a promotional poster in a kebab store or sponsoring a night at a nightclub.
Howes, who took up his post in 2004, says setting up these links will not have been easy for his predecessors. It involved demonstrating how a link-up would add value to a music festival, for instance.
Howes says the key was to ensure the messages were not health-related and looked like a brand that young men would buy into as if it were a commercial product.
Hence it linked with rapper Dizzee Rascal, who last year released a video single in support of the charity. The track, Dean, was dedicated to a school friend, Dean Monroe, who took his own life.
Last week Calm teamed up with the organisers of the music festival Sound City.
As official charity partner, it made its presence known through logos, a promotions person on the ground, and by raffling autographed memorabilia from bands including Oasis and The Zutons.
“We don’t go in saying ‘we are a charity supporting suicide prevention’,” Howes says. “What this is about is young men and their stresses and strains. It speaks their language and we are commercially savvy and add value to what the organisers do.
“What we can’t afford to do as Calm is to encourage men to be more in touch with their feelings. By that we mean to become more feminine. That’s a turn-off.”
Calm also works closely with Liverpool nightclub Cream at big events such as its annual Creamfields festival.
Cream spokesperson Gill Nightingale says it was important for Cream to continue this link: “In our business we can directly reach out to those people and feed the message through that they’re not alone and there is someone there that can help.
“Cream has a popular appeal to youth audiences and has a voice and credibility in the youth market, in the UK and internationally, which is difficult to reach. Hopefully, with our support it has created some awareness for such an important charity.”
Liverpool’s primary care trust is one of the six PCTs that provides funding to Merseyside Calmzone.
Dr Sandra Davies, its associate director of public health (health improvement), is confident it has proved its worth. “Young men are difficult to engage particularly when it’s issues around mental health or emotions,” she says. “What we’ve often seen is that services set up for young men have often struggled to attract them. The thing about Calm is it’s able to do that in a way that doesn’t make young men feel more stigmatised about the way they are feeling.”
Young men and suicide
● For males and females, suicide rates in England fell from 20 and seven per 100,000 respectively in 1991 to 16 and five per 100,000 respectively in 2008, though there was a slight rise in 2007-8.
● A recent survey of more than 350 young men showed Calm was their top choice for a telephone helpline, over services such as Samaritans, Mind and Saneline.
● Calm has developed an overall awareness level of nearly 25% in Merseyside.
● About 8,000 calls have been received by the Calm helpline from Merseyside over the past 10 years.
➔ Phone line: 0800 585858
➔ Visit the Campaign Against Living Miserably
This article is published in the 27 May 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “A calm approach to suicide prevention”