“Is the pressure to be an Aussie man fuelling a suicide crisis?”
This is the confronting question posed by radio personality Gus Worland in Man Up - a 3-part documentary series recently screened on ABC1 (warning: there’s more than a few expletives). It’s a complex issue, but a critical one. In Australia today, 80% of suicides in Australia are men, and suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 44. This statistic is the pointy end of what is a long list of health issues experienced by Australian men.
“A quiet crisis is underway in men’s health”, declared a 2012 study published by the Australian Psychological Society. How so?
"Men are more vulnerable to various disorders at all ages across the lifespan, engage in more health risk behaviours but less help-seeking, and are less likely to have strong and supportive social networks."
Or in my layman’s summary, men are more likely to experience difficulties, and less likely to get help. It’s a bad combination. As the Chair of men’s ministry BASECAMP, I have been speaking with lots of men seeking to better understand how Christian men in particular are going, and how they can best be served by the ministry. Here are 5 observations about the challenges facing men today. Yes, some of these challenges overlap with those faced by women, but for the purpose of this article the focus is on men, and particularly those under 45 years of age.
Can anyone define what a man is? What is a man meant to be and do? Within the church, Biblical definitions of male identity and headship have been misused and abused to the point where many churches won’t even go near the topic of Biblical manhood. In the culture at large, confusion and shame abound and being a man is frequently communicated as an identity not to embrace but to apologise for. In the media, men are accused of male privilege, male chauvinism, mansplaining and misogyny. A friend is currently enrolled in a gender studies class at university and he told me that in every class the lecturer provides the same reason for the world’s problems - men.
And yet for all this condemnation, men are provided with few if any role models of what a “real man” actually looks like. Eric Metaxas observes in his book "Seven Men: And The Secret of Their Greatness":
“…in our culture, we’ve skimped on providing role models — for young people especially— and I’m convinced that this is tremendously important. We learn by observing the lives of others, whether the people around us, or figures we observe in the media, or figures we read about. We need to see the lives of real human beings lived out in ways that help us figure out how to live out our own lives.”
If you are a Christian man let me ask you:
“Whose life do you observe and think “I want to be like him when I’m 70”? How many men come to mind? Who do you look to as an example to guide you as a father, a husband, a Christian at work?
The Bible makes it clear that older men are to be godly examples:
"Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us." Titus 2:6-8
There has never been a greater need for men to be served with a clear, Biblical and unashamed vision of male identity along with inspiring examples of how to live this out.
As recently as just two generations ago family roles were straightforward - men went to work, and women looked after the home. This observation of the past may sound quaint to some (and will no doubt infuriate others), but the reality is that lines of responsibility have become blurred and family life is more complex than ever before. Men are more involved in the lives of their children, and taking a more active role outside the workplace. Men aren’t doing this reluctantly - in fact they relish these opportunities to spend more time with their children and to support their wives as they pursue work outside the home. But this involvement comes at a cost. It is in addition to, not instead of the significant (and ever-increasing) demands of paid employment.
For all the talk of “flexible workplaces”, most men with children need to work later to compensate for the hours missed while doing school drop-off, or attending the school swimming carnival. This juggling of responsibilities comes at a time of unprecedented job instability - Australians today will have on average 17 different employers in a lifetime and 5 careers. Demands on time extend beyond the home and workplace. There are cultural pressures - to exercise more, to get more educated, to be more involved at the school or sporting club.
But there are also pressures as Christian men - to serve more, attend more events, read the Bible more (yourself, with your wife, with your children), be more involved in the community, share the gospel more, etc. Most men I speak with feel that life is a zero-sum game - to succeed in one area is to fail in another. They are burdened by an exhausting, nagging guilt that they are simply not doing enough - as a husband, father, friend, neighbour, employee, Christian.
Jesus came with the promise of rest:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
And yet, an alarming number of Christian men (including pastors, as this research from Crossway reveals) are in fact tired, stressed, over-committed and at risk of burnout. Men need help to navigate and prioritise the demands and responsibilities of life, and to find rest in a restless world.
Temptation to sin existed long before to the internet but this age of constant connectivity makes sin, and especially sexual sin, an ever-present threat. Sexually explicit content is everywhere, all the time. Comedian Russell Brand reflected on the dramatic shift in access to pornography since he was a teenager, and how inconceivable it is that today we have:
“…icebergs of filth floating through every house on wifi…What it must be like to be an adolescent boy now with this kind of access to porn must be dizzying and exciting but corrupting in a way that we can’t even think about.”
Men are exposed to pornography from a younger age (12 years is the average age for first exposure), to more violent and depraved content, in more places and on more devices. According to Covenant Eyes, 64% of Christian men say they view pornography at least once a month, with pornography being the topic of 20% of all searches on mobile devices. Whenever I share resources in REFUEL - a monthly email newsletter for men - the links that receive the most clicks are always related to sexual purity.
When I surveyed men and asked “What is the number one sin you would like to put to death in your life?”, 60% of men under 45 years named sexual sin. On Communicate Jesus, one of the most viewed articles every day is a review of tools for online accountability. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this struggle. Every statistic points to the prevalence of this problem. Every story reveals the growing cost to society, the participants in the sex industry, families, marriages, productivity, ministries - and above all, the glory of God.
Men (and boys) need to be equipped to fight this great battle of our day.
I spoke with a pastor recently who shared that he believes the main goal for many men in his church is to purchase a house. If they cannot do this, they feel that they have failed as a man, a husband and a father. Of course, men don’t say this out loud and probably couldn’t even articulate it if they were asked, put it is a powerful desire that subconsciously drives so many of the decisions men make. In practice, life’s purpose has become little more than home ownership.
In less affluent areas, the aspirations are different. One pastor I spoke with in Western Sydney told me that the men in his church couldn’t dream of purchasing a house - instead they are driven by the aspirations of getting a job, having a family, and staying married. Of course it’s not sinful to own a house, be employed and enjoy marriage and fatherhood. However, if men are driven by a purpose that is no greater than achieving these goals, that’s a problem.
Over coffee recently, a man reflected to me his conviction that men are in great need of a self-sacrificing, God-glorifying, life-shaping purpose - a mission to give their lives to. Surely too many men (myself included) have as C.S. Lewis put it, become “far too easily pleased” with the things of this world?
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Men are fooling about with homes and holidays, careers and cars, exercise and entertainment - forgetting that God has called us to so much more. Men need to be given a God-exalting, all-consuming vision for their lives that puts in their place the lesser aspirations that the world dangles before us.
Finally, research continues to reveal the dire state of male relationships. Research by Beyond Blue discovered that 25 per cent of 30 to 65-year-old men had no-one outside their immediate family they felt they could rely on. Even where men have friends to spend time with, a recent study by McCrindle observed that:
“whilst nearly all men (97%) agree making time for their mates is essential, the majority (85%) of Aussie males are struggling to find enough time for much needed ‘man time’ with their friends.”
The risks are more significant than we might first think. An article earlier this month in the Boston Globe was headlined “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” The author explained the consequences of isolation:
“Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke and the progression of Alzheimer’s. One study found that it can be as much of a long-term risk factor as smoking.”
In fact, isolation and loneliness increase the risk of premature death by 26 to 32 percent. The author went on to reflect on his own life:
“I’m very happy in my life. If I need someone to confide in, I have my wife. All the pieces are here, except one — the guys. I’d like to think they’re also missing me and are just locked into this same prison of commitments. But I don’t want to wait until we’re all retired and can reconnect on a golf course. It feels silly to wait that long, and thanks to this stupid story, I know it’s quite dangerous.”
But vital as these friendships are, as the McCrindle study observed, time together keeps falling down the list of priorities:
“Career driven, family focused and health conscious Aussie men are crowding their lives with commitments. As a result of these pressures and competing priorities, the time available for men to kick back and relax with their mates has begun to erode.”
And yet, when the time is made, men are greatly impacted. This was clear in the Man Up documentary, where I was encouraged to see that four times a year, Gus and his friends head off to the country to spend time together for fun and “the serious stuff” - helping each other with the things that they’re struggling with.
It’s been striking at BASECAMP, where one of the annual events takes place in the Blue Mountains, 90 minutes outside of Sydney. Many men travel from Sydney and have commented on how much they have grown as a result of this uninterrupted time with other men. Men need friends, and to make time to be with their friends. Friendship. Purpose. Purity. Rest. Identity. These are five ways I believe that men need to be served today.
And the more I research and speak with men, the more I am convinced that serving men is of critical importance - not only for their physical and spiritual health, but also for wider good of their families, workplaces, churches and communities.