The other day, I was chatting with another mother at a birthday party.
We sat on a bench watching her granddaughter run around with my daughter, gold unicorn horns tied on their heads.
We’d just finished rather large slices of rich chocolate cake. I held my daughter’s goodie bag on my lap, stuffed with unicorn-themed party favors. It was a bright and sunny afternoon, that special privilege of summer birthdays.
In passing, I mentioned to her that I’d gone to the local high school. Her face brightened. “I wonder if you knew my son,” she said. “When did you graduate?”
I gave her the year.
She nodded vigorously, then said a name.
It was a name I hadn’t thought of in over twenty years.
A name so elusive that I thought at first I must be wrong. “Did he … pass away?” I asked, fumbling for the right word.
“Yes,” she said.
Suddenly, the day turned chill. I had known her son.
He had committed suicide. Junior year.
The only one in our small school to have done it.
The Silent Epidemic
Perhaps you’ve known someone who’s taken their own life.
A friend. A neighbor. Someone from your class or work or church.
Even though more women are likely to attempt suicide, men are four times more likely to kill themselves.
It’s not something that gets talked about often enough.
In the BC Medical Journal, Dan Bilsker and Jennifer White write:
Suicide in men has been described as a ‘silent epidemic:’ epidemic because of its high incidence and substantial contribution to men’s mortality, and silent because of a lack of public awareness, a paucity of explanatory research, and the reluctance of men to seek help for suicide-related concerns.” 
It’s not just something that happens to young men, either.
Although suicide kills more 10 to 34-year-old American white males than any other cause but accidents, middle-aged men aren’t immune.
Suicide is the 3rd most common cause of death for men aged 34 to 44, topped only by accidents and heart disease. 
Why are so many men taking their own lives?
Why aren’t they getting help?
What Puts a Man at Risk
We now know more than ever which factors are likely to converge in a successful suicide attempt.
Dr. Laura Roberts at Stanford explains that “three factors appear to be in play. (1) A predisposition or vulnerability, for example, the presence of depression or anxiety that increases the general risk of suicide; (2) access to a way to end one’s life, such as a gun; and (3) an experience or set of experiences that make the individual feel like he is out of place, isn’t part of things, and doesn’t belong—what’s referred to as ‘thwarted belongingness.’” 
The first two are well-known, but the third may surprise you.
We know that depressed men are more likely to attempt suicide. Depressed men with access to a gun, even more so.
But even depressed men with access to weapons don’t necessarily consider killing themselves.
What provides that final push is feeling on the outside.
Feeling like he doesn’t belong and will never belong.
No wonder some of the groups with the highest suicide risk include veterans and Native American youth on the cusp of adulthood.
Knowing who you are and who your people are matters.
Men need to know there’s somewhere they’re always welcome, somewhere that will always be home, somewhere they’ll be greeted with a hug and a smile no matter what they have or haven’t done.
That’s not something all men have.
Married men are luckier than most. Having a wife to talk to makes a man more likely to open up about his feelings and seek help.
But even married men can find their marriages failing, leaving them alone once more.
Another group at risk is elderly white men in poor health living on their own. They may not have a strong support network, and poor health keeps them from getting out in the world.
Once a man decides to take his own life, very little time elapses between the decision and the act. He doesn’t give himself time to think. Nor does he give himself time to be talked out of it.
Spotting the Signs
Does knowing these risk factors change how you see anyone in your life?
My classmate’s mother was certain her son’s death was an accident.
There were no signs. He was doing well in school. He was looking forward to a skiing trip. He was a happy, well-adjusted teen. He didn’t even leave a suicide note.
What should she have been looking for?
One study found that “a family history of suicidal behavior, previous drug use, and early parental separation” can play a role. 
Teens are often enthusiastic experimenters with drugs and alcohol, substances that can remove inhibitions.
Another contributor is social stressors like problems in the family, pressures at school, or financial insecurity. When a man is having a hard time and problems are piling up on him, he may see no other way out.
Depression is harder to spot in men than women. It can present as anger, irritability, or aggressiveness. Depressed men can also experience their symptoms physically as a racing heart, tight chest, chronic headaches, or digestive issues.
So an angry young man who binge-drinks, complains of chronic stomach pains, and struggles to fit in at his new school may fit the profile—even though he displays no obvious signs of sadness.
How You Can Help
So what can you do?
It’s wonderful to see more and more male celebrities opening up about mental health. From Prince Harry to Jim Carrey, “The Rock” Dwayne Johnson and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, it’s becoming safer for men to admit they don’t have it all together.
Anxiety is okay. ADHD is okay. Depression is okay.
Talk to your man about what you’re reading on the news. What does he think about Anthony Bourdain? What does he think about Michael Phelps’ struggles? Is it okay for men to talk about their mental health issues in public? Does it make them less of a man?
Talking about public figures can help break the ice, but ultimately you want to know what he’s going through personally.
And he’s been trained his whole life to stuff that down.
Stuffing down feelings is the way many men deal with negative stuff. Don’t admit you’re hurting. Have a drink, hit some weights, go for a fast drive—anything that will get your mind off how you feel.
Men don’t want to talk about their feelings, because they fear it makes them weak.
Former professional football player Lewis Howes understands. He went through it himself, funneling his anger and insecurity and hurt into pummeling opponents on the football field.
Today, he wants to make it safe for men to be vulnerable.
“Not many men are talking about the insecurities, pressures, fears, and vulnerabilities that most men think they’re not allowed to talk about,” he says.
“It’s been conditioned that it’s not okay to show emotion. It’s not okay to reveal the things that have happened to you in the past, because that makes you a weak human being. It makes you less than a man. It makes you any type of name that kids are called all the time in school for doing anything that is compassionate, giving, caring, or empathetic. That type of conditioning is hard to break in men, especially if it’s something that they’ve faced for decades.” 
He’s trying to break that cycle through his book The Mask of Masculinity, which held me riveted. I recommend finding a copy so you can better understand the man in your life—and share it with him, if he’s open.
Michael Phelps agrees that men have to learn to talk it out. He told the TODAY show:
You know, for me, I basically carried just about every negative emotion you can possibly carry along for 15, 20 years and I never talked about it. And I don’t know why that one day I decided to just open up. But since that day it’s just been so much easier to live and so much easier to enjoy life and it’s something I’m very thankful for.” 
Any time you can lend an ear to the man in your life—and hold space for him without fixing his problems or sharing your own—you’re doing your part to teach him that his feelings are okay. He’s okay.
This is how life is, with ups and downs, achievements and setbacks, successes and failures. None of that makes him less of a person. None of that makes him less than a man. And none of that will ever make you love him less.