A simple hand gesture has taken on a very important meaning across social media over the past month.
When people post selfies with their thumbs and pointer fingers connected in a circle, commonly interpreted as a gesture of “OK” ― they’re actually trying to save lives.
As part of the #ItsOkayToTalk campaign, these photos are promoting the idea that encouraging conversation about mental health and suicide could reduce the stigma that prevents men from speaking up about their struggles.
This initiative couldn’t be more necessary: In the U.S., the national suicide rate is the highest it’s been in 30 years, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. What’s more, men are at greater risk. White men accounted for seven out of 10 suicides in 2014, and the highest suicide rate was in middle aged men, according to a data analysis from the National Center for Health Statistics.
Stigma is a huge factor in mental health issues and also in suicide, according to Kristin Holland, a behavioral scientist in the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention Surveillance.
“Even when at-risk individuals do seek health care, stigma about suicide can prevent them from disclosing their thoughts about suicide with their medical providers,” Holland told The Huffington Post.
That’s why Luke Ambler, whose brother, Andy, died by suicide at the age of 23, created #ItsOkayToTalk in July, along with the Facebook group, Andy’s Man Club ― to give guys a place to “reach out, speak to people, tell them how you’re feeling, and never let it get too bad... because it’s okay to talk, and we all go through struggles in life,” he told The Telegraph.
How masculinity gets in the way of good mental health
“Some scholars talk about suicide among U.S. men as a ‘silent epidemic’ because of how often it occurs and how little public awareness there is about this fact,” Tristan Bridges, assistant professor of sociology at The College of Brockport in New York who focuses on masculinity, told HuffPost in an email.
“There are lots of contributing factors to men’s heightened risk of suicide, and masculinity is a big one,” he said. “The emotional stoicism often thought to characterize masculinity also holds men back from actually opening up about their feelings and struggles. Challenging our cultural definition of masculinity is often framed as ‘male-bashing.’ But suicide is one of many issues that demonstrates that men have a stake in challenging gender inequality, too. Some of their lives depend on it.”
“There are lots of contributing factors to men’s heightened risk of suicide, and masculinity is a big one.”
Of course, suicide is not just a male issue ― it’s a public health issue, and we have a long way to go to address it. But by opening up about the specific influence of gender norms, we’re taking a big step in the right direction.
Read on to learn about six men who are participating in the #ItsOkayToTalk campaign: