Comment: Male suicide is an epidemic of silence
To ‘outsiders’ – and as a Cumbrian bloke who lives in Edinburgh, I very much fall into that category – the Scottish Borders’ unique culture can sometimes seem quite parochial.
I’ve spent years living and working in the region, but my first impression was that the celebration of masculinity appears to run deep through the territory.
Horse riding, athletics, agriculture, rugby union and drinking are celebrated in equal measure, and the region’s unofficial motto - “it’s aye been” – sums up many Borderers’ stoic attitude to the ever-changing politics and culture of the central belt ‘city-dwellers’.
But scratch the surface, and you’ll find efforts are being made to challenge some of the more taboo elements of masculinity – namely preventing male suicide by challenging the stigma some men feel when talking about their mental health.
In 2020, 71 per cent of suicides were of men, and men in typically ‘masculine’ environments, like working-class communities and sports clubs, still find it difficult to open up and seek help.
In Selkirk, the young men who are elected each year to represent their community in the annual Common Riding Festival beam with pride, and speaking to both past and current ‘principals’ it’s not hard to see why – they see representing their town, in sports and in ceremony, as an enormous honour.
Here, the horse races, the rugby, the flag-casting and civic pride are all expressions of a masculinity of positivity, caring and love for their community.
Unfortunately, male mental health in the town, and wider attitudes towards male mental health, have recently been thrust into the spotlight.
The hearts of Borderers are never bigger than in the wake of tragedy, and in Selkirk, the community is still in mourning after losing a 19-year-old rugby player, Harris Macdonell, to suicide last year. His death followed the loss of another of Selkirk’s sons, Frightened Rabbit singer Scott Hutchison, in 2018. He also took his own life.
Nobody bands together like Borderers – and now Selkirk RFC has become one of the first rugby clubs in Scotland to appoint a mental health officer, with a view to supporting the town’s men and boys who congregate at the club’s Philiphaugh ground each week.
Here, in a region that celebrates masculinity, and in a sport that sometimes values it above all else, the club is telling the men and boys of the town that it is time to talk, and open up about a subject that has previously seemed taboo.
Posters throughout the club, and especially the changing rooms, let players know it’s ‘time to talk’, and mental health first aid training is routinely held at the club for all members.
The club’s players, too, wear their hearts on their sleeves – the arms of Selkirk’s jerseys are emblazoned with the logo of the Tiny Changes mental health charity, set up in memory of singer-songwriter Scott Hutchison in 2020 by his family.
There’s two things I should probably admit to at this point – one is that I’ve had my fair share of mental health issues – and the other is that I occasionally turn out for Selkirk as a tighthead prop on a Saturday afternoon.
I say this because for years I felt unable to speak up, constricted by a toxic idea of masculinity that forbids men from showing emotions or admitting to ‘weakness’.
Here in the Borders, the stand that these role models are taking in their town, in challenging male mental health stigma for the younger generations coming through the club, and wider community, could be life-saving.