“His death should make us wonder how much we really know about anyone, and what we could be doing to know more,” writes David Whitehouse.
His name was Mike Thalassitis. He was a son. He was a brother. He was a devoted grandchild. He was a talented footballer. He was more than a contestant on Love Island, but that is how many know him best - as a charming, handsome, funny extrovert, sun-kissed and untroubled by complexity. Last week, aged just 26, Mike Thalassitis tragically took his own life. His death should make us wonder how much we really know about anyone, and what we could be doing to know more.
Men make up three quarters of all suicides in the UK. Death by suicide is the biggest killer in men aged between 15 and 35. The causes are always vastly complex and intensely personal. They can never be attributed to just one thing. Not depression. Not change in circumstance. Not a suggested lack of adequate aftercare from the production team of a reality TV show. What we do know is that a bunch of reasons can coalesce until, like a congregation of clouds, there’s enough to block the sun from the sky.
But we can say that men don’t talk enough. A survey carried out by The Samaritans, its results coincidentally released in the days after Mike’s death, found that two in five men in England, Scotland and Wales aged between 20 and 59 don’t seek support when they need to because they prefer to solve their own problems. The survey also showed that men often don’t want to feel like a burden and don’t feel their problems will be understood. It’s true that men are dying when talking might save them. That’s less a sad aspect of modern masculinity than it is a fissure in the culture.
The conversation around male mental health is changing though. There is a movement to encourage men to open up more about their problems, and in many ways men are. If you’re looking for them, and we should be, you might see the distress flares sent up on Facebook or Twitter by those who could do with some help. This is new, and not just a result of the invention of the medium, but symptomatic of the conversation being dragged into the light. Like everything, it’s more impactful still in real life. Organisations like Andy’s Man Club, a straight-talking group therapy session, attracts some 1200 men in 18 locations across the UK every Monday at 7pm.
The conversation around male mental health works best if it’s as open and honest as we want and need men to be about their problems. But in exorcising demons, we’re also creating ghouls. You don’t need to search hard to find brands now shifting with faux-sincerity to make themselves part of a dialogue in which they don’t like to admit they’re actually already a part.
In the days since Mike’s death, The Sun newspaper launched a campaign called ‘Let’s Talk’ to encourage people to talk about their problems. The campaign has the backing of the suicide-prevention charity Papyrus and the UK’s three major political parties, some, if not all of which, are directly responsible for woefully, dangerously inadequate government investment in mental healthcare provision – NHS mental health services are as under-strain as the people they’re tasked with helping. The Sun has enough young male readers for this to make a difference, and if it does so to one of them, this is enough.
But The Sun is part of a media machine – which includes the reality TV series of which Mike was a willing participant – that has continually exploited society’s most vulnerable for profit. If we want men to share their troubles more freely, we must examine why they have them in the first place. Maybe that is where this conversation should be headed. Maybe it’s one we should be having with each other.
Tragically, it all comes too late for some. It all comes too late for Mike. But if his death serves to remind us of pain’s invisibility, and so to search a little harder for it where we suspect but cannot see it may exist – the bruises that live beneath the skin - then it is not in vain. We can talk when we need to. We can be there for someone. That is what we can do.