The importance of talking about the issue of suicide in young men: The story of Joe Griffiths
Trigger warning: this blog contains sensitive content.
This year Joe Griffiths took his own life at age 22. His death brings attention to the fact that societally, more awareness of this sensitive issue is needed, as well as better suicide prevention. The delicate issue of suicide needs further courage, dialogue, and investment in research to create services that young men want to use over their lifetimes.
In this blog, we talk to Joe’s mother, Karen about her recent experience of the loss and Joe’s struggle with Tourette’s syndrome.
Joe Griffiths was a young British man aged 22 years old. Joe struggled with Tourette’s syndrome. His mother Karen, was well aware that he experienced feeling a lack of self-worth and struggled to manage his emotions. People with Tourette's syndrome (TS) experience involuntary tics, sounds and body movements that begin in childhood. Most people with the syndrome find social integration difficult, due to the involuntary gestures and sounds that cannot be held back in social situations. Research shows that young people with the syndrome face barriers to educational attainment and peer relationships. Living with the condition means a risk of embarrassment and shame, and they can be teased and excluded by others (you can hear from young people with Tourette’s in this video).
Currently, there is a lack of research on the topic of suicide in young people with Tourette’s. Research by Robertson found that two people with Tourette’s that ended their lives had previously experienced substantial social stigma, their illness affecting day-to-day functioning and a range of other stressors.
Society doesn’t make it easy for young men in emotional distress or people that act differently
Joe was a young man that was in a lot of emotional pain. Currently, our society doesn’t make it easy for young men to openly discuss emotional pain or get the right help for the struggles that they are dealing with. In many cases, the existing help for emotional pain doesn’t work for particular individuals. Of the existing help that is available, there are long waiting lists.
As well as the devastating and irreversible loss of life, the people left behind from suicide are extremely affected. I had the opportunity to talk to Joe’s mother, Karen, and hear her story:
“I have no anger, no confusion, and no shock. But I am carrying so much pain, grief, and enormous loss.
Joe was quite transparent, eventually, in relation to his pain. We knew of his tics from an early age, around 4 or 5 years old. We didn’t actually know it as Tourette’s until much later though. It was quite mild, we thought, and I was pleased that Joe wasn’t one of the unlucky ones who shouted or swore, they were just small tics and gentle grunts. Many people didn’t notice that he had tics. Joe did though and he just wanted to be normal. He didn’t speak about his pain but at about age 16 he started to use drugs to deaden the tics and the pain – to try for a short time to be happy. Self-harm, suicide attempts and 6 years of a parent’s nightmare watching his struggle and unable to fix it. He harmed himself because he felt he was hurting us and he was sorry and punished himself.
Joe dropped out of College. He left home. He left his family as he was unable to cope with his pain and equally seeing us suffer watching him. We tried to keep in touch and Joe allowed us to but he wouldn’t come back.
Then, a couple of years ago, he started to pick up and we thought that he had turned a corner. We worked together with him to get him a job and somewhere to live. He spent time with us and looked healthy and fit. This lasted until about 3 months ago and he started to withdraw. His place was a mess. He’s always been a scruffy boy so we didn’t think too much about it but my worry was back. In all honesty, now that I think about it, the worry was always there, I always knew it was going to end badly. I used to have a recurring dream well before Joe turned 16 and at that point things really went bad. In the dream, Joe was gone and I couldn’t even be sure he’d ever been there. I always thought that I would lose him one day.
When I heard the news, I was on holiday on the 9th June and I took a call from my mum. As soon as I saw it was her calling, I knew it was about Joe. She wouldn’t call otherwise. Joe had jumped and was gone.
I think he waited as long as he could. We were on holiday and so wouldn’t find him…
Joe protected us and prepared us for his loss. He had asked me how I’d cope if he wasn’t here. I imagine that by the end he felt a sense of relief, that it was going to be over and he’d be at peace. I hope for that with all my heart. I have to believe it.
I missed some of the signs, I should have talked more, sought more help, forced him to stay with me.
With Joe’s Tourette’s I think we just tried to normalise it, accept it, and not make a big deal out of it. We tried to show Joe that it was ok to be different and be confident about it. It didn’t work and I just didn’t realise just how wrong I was.
If I could go back in time, I’d seek more help for Joe at a younger age. When I wanted him to get that help he was too old and independent for me to be able to force him when he didn’t want to.
Joe had had enough of the life he was given. He wanted to be free from it. He is now. He’s at peace. I will learn to carry the sadness and loss and carry Joe with me always.”
There are many families and friends who, like Karen, worry about their loved one’s future and mental health, and possibly have to adapt to life without a son, a brother, or a partner. Since Joe’s death, Karen has dedicated herself to supporting others and is happy to talk to other parents that have lost a child or a loved one in this way.
Joe had several key factors that placed him at greater risk of suicide: (1) he was a young person, (2) he had Tourette’s, and (3), he was male.
People with Tourette’s syndrome are at greater risk of depression and self-harm, as are young people with a mental health disorder. Growing up with a tic as a young person, has been found to increase the odds of suicide in adulthood. More broadly, statistics find that 20% of 11–16 year olds, and nearly half of 17–19 year olds (46.8%) with a mental disorder reported that they have self-harmed or attempted suicide at some point in their lives (State of Child Health).
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people, with young men at more risk of suicide
In all age groups for children and young people, young men are more likely to take their own lives than young women. For example, 532 young males in the UK (between the ages 15–24) took their own lives in 2018 compared to 182 young females. Generally speaking, in countries such as UK and America, men are 3X more likely to commit suicide than women.
Why are men more at risk of suicide?
Simon Hatcher, vice-chair of research for the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa, suggests that men do not attempt to seek care as often as women. Studies show that in the year before they killed themselves, only 35% of men saw a mental-health practitioner, while 58% of women did.
Another factor is that men are less likely to express their emotions and vulnerability. Some men find it hard to talk about painful emotions such as grief, fear, hopelessness, anxiety, and societal expectations can lead men to feel expected to “man up” or, take a “stiff upper lip”.
The warning signs in men are different
Another possible reason is that it may be harder to detect suicide risk in men.
Research by Ogrodniczuk & Oliffe found that depression in men can be characterised by them becoming angrier, more irritable, undertaking substance abuse and risky sexual activity, compared to women who may show signs of sadness, and withdrawal.
This means that such behaviour might not be perceived as depressive symptoms or suicide risk, but instead as bad or reckless behaviour.
When therapy doesn’t work
Finally, whilst it’s true that many young men do not access help, research finds that a proportion of young men that are getting professional help, such as therapy, but that this help doesn’t work. We need to understand what kind of help is most effective in reducing risk of suicide and what helps young people and young men at risk to engage with therapy and professional help.
Joe’s story is heart-breaking and the loss for his family is devastating. It’s inspiring that Karen is able to share her story and raise awareness of this issue and willing to help others.
New interventions and projects are needed that support young men, men, and young people with mental health disorders that recognise intersectional and cumulative sources of vulnerability.
We need to recognise that young men are a vulnerable group and move beyond the stigma. There is a need to create spaces for men and young men with specific neuropsychiatric disorders to be vulnerable and get help in anonymous ways that might differ from our existing conceptions of mental health support.
It is important to support the families going through bereavement and listen to their stories and support them in ways that they identify, as bereaved families can also be at risk of poor mental health. In this instance, Karen is already helping other families affected by suicide and connecting with others in their grief.
Many thanks to Karen Wiesenekker for sharing her story and co-writing this piece.
Rest in peace, Joe.