The other day I was listening to a seminar about suicide ideation and mental health in the Queer community, particularly men living with HIV. Obviously it’s a vulnerable population for many intersecting reasons. The presentation highlighted some statistics that compared HIV positive men to HIV negative men and as expected, the frequency of suicide ideation and attempts were higher in the positive guys. Sound bleak? I know…but there was a glimmer of hope in the presentation when the presenter told us about a project, the goal of which is to break the silence around suicide and start us on a path towards targeted interventions.
It seems to have worked for me.
The Still Here Project features powerful photos and narratives from men who have either attempted or considered suicide. Men were asked to take a photo, or a few, of something that shines a light on the emotions or factors surrounding their suicide ideation. I find this so powerful because when it comes to mental health, men are often asked to “Man-up” and align themselves with absurd expectations of “masculinity (click for a more humorous perspective)” forced onto them by the patriarchal culture we all exist in. These standards breed a culture of stigma and avoidance when it comes to mental health. The result? A lack acknowledgement from people in places of power, fewer resources available to those in need and of course, a lack of people reaching out for support. Projects like this aim to raise the profile of the realities of mental health and suicide in a way that any human can relate. Here are men defying the “norm”, making themselves vulnerable and saying “Yes, I have feelings. Yes, I think about suicide. This is what is happening in my life to make me feel this way.”
If this isn’t bravery, I don’t know what is.
In the photo series, I came across a simple photo of a phone with the time reading 5:00. Most people at this time are probably wrapping up work thinking about what they’ll be doing with the rest of their day, what they’ll eat, who they’ll see. In a city like mine, Vancouver, many are heading out for Happy Hour with friends. The caption on the photo reads:
Is this working?
No one phones me. Do people care about me or am I alone in the world?
When I read that, 5:00 took on a different meaning. Imagine how difficult 5:00’s would be if you felt like you had nobody. This one man’s experience isn’t far from that of many of us today, especially young people. Over the last 20-30 years, we’ve experienced technological advancement at an unprecedented rate, especially in the world of communication. It wasn’t even 15 years ago when I got a letter at boarding school from my father telling me about his new “GSM” (that’s what mobile phones were called when they were fairly new in Nigeria). And here we are in 2017 and 22% of little humans in the US have their first cellphone by the age of 9. This number jumps to 60% by 14.
I haven’t even gotten to the multitude of ways we can connect through these devices. You had your AIM, your MySpace, your Yahoo messenger, your MSN, Hi5 (don’t lie, you had one too), and then came Facebook and smartphones that changed the game. At the time of their inception, they were a great idea. An innovative way for us to instantly share what’s going on in our lives, meet people we previously couldn’t fathom knowing, connecting with others around shared interests and ideas and, of course, sharing photos of our babies, cats and food. I don’t think many foresaw the potentially damaging side effects. We are more “connected” than ever before but in reality we are chronically isolated. We’ve developed habits and rituals that revolve around our devices and social media. You don’t even need statistics to tell you. I was thinking about this issue on the train today and I looked around and saw literally everyone staring at their phones. In that moment, I also realized that on another day, that could be me. I thought about trying to start a conversation with one of them but I decided not to because they’d probably think I’m strange for talking to someone I don’t know. The first and last thing many of us do on any given day is look at our phones, and they go everywhere with us. And heaven forbid we run out of charge and don’t have our charger with us.
Anyway my point is we’ve become so attached and distracted by all the new ways to interact that we haven’t noticed the creeping signs of social isolation and an inability to truly connect with those around us. And I haven’t even mentioned the polarizing nature of social media and the freedom it seems to give us to other and dehumanize people we disagree with. Status updates have replaced thoughtful letters and phone calls. Our sense of worth relies on the amount of likes we get on our posts (you can even buy likes now). We live for the beep and ding of new notifications but clam up when the phone rings. We’ve become more cynical and less critical all at the same time. We project into the nether sphere, the version of ourselves we want others to see. A version we think they will love, accept, and perhaps envy a little bit. Often times the things we want to say about how we are feeling, we can’t. Not to the people closest to us and not to our “friends” online. Those who take the brave step to uncover their vulnerability on social media, much like the men in the Still Here Project, are far too often viewed as “weird” or “too much”.
Aside from the brutally obvious fact that we need to realize that emotional wellbeing is as much a part of health as a broken bone, we also need to critically examine our relationship with social media and technology and how it affects our wellbeing. We need to disconnect sometimes for the sake of reconnecting with reality and all the beautiful messy things that make us human. We need to balance our online connection with our human connection. It’s quite possible to make small steps to wean yourself off technological dependency. I’ve started trying some of this and I encourage you to join me.
- On your morning commute, take a book with you and put your phone on silent and slip it into your bag.
- Turn your phone data off to restrict your time browsing the internet to when you’re connected to WiFi. You might even save some money this way.
- When you’re hanging out with friends, put your phone away, or at the very least have it on silent facedown on the table. I read about a fun game with friends when you’re eating; you pile your phones on the table and the first person to touch their phone before the bill comes pays the collective tip (or if you’re feeling adventurous, the whole bill).
- Send one handwritten letter/note to a friend or family member once a month.
- Call at least one friend a week just to say hello or to have a great conversation. Improve those communication skills. You can even try calling that new love interest that you just watched with on Tinder after you exchange numbers. The way a person communicates by text isn’t always how they are in person.
- For heaven’s sake, turn off your phone or put it on silent when you go to bed unless it’s absolutely necessary. Yes your alarm will still go off when your phone is on silent. Those messages can wait till you wake up. Enjoy your sleep and wean yourself off this artificial sense of urgency and immediacy that we all seem to be living in these days.
I am well aware of the irony as I type this post and will share it on Facebook, but taking even the smallest of steps to being more mindful about our use can make a huge difference. Technology is supposed to make life more efficient and generally better but that’s only when we are in control of it. Don’t be a slave to it. Spend less time looking down and look up.
TL;DR? This music video by Stromae, one of my favourite artists sums it up quite nicely.