Man Therapy

You don’t often see a campaign designed for suicide prevention featured in the Advertising column in The New York Times.  But on Monday (July 9, 2012) the Times reported on a Colorado suicide prevention effort aimed at men, featuring PSA’s, YouTube videos and a website, ManTherapy.org.  The campaign uses humor to capture men’s attention and engagement with the site to open them up to the options of talking to a doctor and therapy.

I wonder about this.  I wonder if using online user experience strategies and engagement tools will attract seriously depressed guys in the first place and convincingly persuade them to seek help. If someone is contemplating suicide, will he really be deflected by a PSA or quizzes on a website?  The mock doctor portrayed on Man Therapy is gently humorous, folksy and not threatening.  I doubt that many would initially connect his easy-going style and message with suicide prevention.

I wonder, too, about the signs on the Golden Gate Bridge: “The Consequence of Jumping from This Bridge are Fatal and Tragic.”  The jumpers know that.  That’s why they’re there.  Do the signs deter many?  From watching the movie “The Bridge”—cynical and heartbreaking—it would appear that indecision, perhaps fear, cause some to hesitate, although in the end they all jumped.  [It was a mistake to have watched it.]  And the San Francisco Police Department no longer publishes the number of bridge fatalities so as not to attract even more.

The Times article states that women are three times more likely to attempt suicide, but the fatality rates for men who attempt are four times higher, or 79 percent to 21 percent.  31 percent of men jump. Among active duty servicemen in Afghanistan, as of June 1, more died of suicide than killed in action.  Would they have been helped by logging on to ManTherapy.net?

I’m reading the MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle’s latest book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.  She writes, “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities.  And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed.  We are lonely but fearful of intimacy.”  Having risked intimacy, I once told someone I wasn’t fragile but I was very vulnerable.  The danger wasn’t technology, rather love.  When that vulnerability was pierced, like my heart, the Golden Gate Bridge, for a moment, beckoned. That moment passed and history didn’t repeat itself, although the vulnerability remained. Technology has proved no balm, however my sons and friends have.  Fellowship works.  Turkle’s book strongly suggests that younger people often seek that possible balm in virtual worlds, in social networks, in relationships defined digitally rather than personally.  In Chatroulette, a “relationship” typically lasts no longer than a few seconds.  There’s very little heartbreak when someone unfriends you on Facebook. [Wanting to limit my Facebook friends to 150, I have unfriended more than 500.  I hope they haven’t been heartbroken.]

Someone must be studying the relationship between new technology and suicide.  My own unscientific opinion is that technology may play a role of withdrawal, but it’s the same old forces of love, hate, money, affronts to self-esteem and alienation that pull the trigger.  Speaking of triggers, the Times article also states that one reason men are more successful at killing themselves is because their gun ownership is much higher than women’s—a statistic I’m sure the NRA ignores.

Are the Man Therapy PSA’s and its linked website advertising?  The Times article is in the Media section, headed “Advertising,” so the paper clearly believes it so.  For decades public service announcements have advised us not to drink, not to smoke, not to light fires in the woods.  The most horrifying five minutes of film I know is a PSA from the Victoria (Australia) Transport Accident Commission graphically showing the consequences of drunk driving, set to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts.”  The first time I saw it I couldn’t watch it to the end. Try for yourself:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2mf8DtWWd8

The eminent Jungian psychologist James Hillman, in his Suicide and the Soul, describes what we call emotional suicides, performed under the domination of an overriding passion.  “Here would belong revenge against one’s enemies, to give others anguish; to manipulate the world, in rage at frustration; humiliation over financial ruin, shame over public exposure; suicides of guilt and conscience, of anxious terror, of the melancholy of aging, of loneliness, of abandonment, of grief, of apathy and emptiness, of drunken despair and despair over failure, especially failure in love.”

I suspect the men who may look into ManTherapy.com might well be suffering from one of these emotional states.  Frankly, who at times hasn’t?  I don’t believe any man would, however, wish to believe he had been manipulated by advertising.  Maybe that’s the beauty of the campaign—it’s in stealth mode.

Maybe one thing the campaign could accomplish—being an even greater good—would be to change ManTherapy to man therapy.  For the most part it’s true that depressed men don’t like to talk about their depression.  And yet, the fellowship of guys is a powerful force.  Even talking to just one friend can open up the possibility of brighter times.  Over the past year the most effective therapy I’ve experienced has been the support and friendship I have with other men.  Sure, there have been women friends, too, who have been there and offered their own friendship and perspective, different from my close group of men, and therefore welcome and valuable.  Only another woman could read an email and declare it “fifty paragraphs of crap!”

I was once asked by an allegedly “important” psychiatrist if I had read Camus’s The Stranger.  The question was odd and was asked with more than a bit of showmanship.  He was making a point about psychological barriers and behavior patterns.  Friendship has been the antidote, not the medical profession.

If the ManTherapy campaign helps only one man, it will be worth it.

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