Has a charity campaign ever carried such a powerful punch as Project 84? Indeed, one would struggle to name an artistic statement in any medium which bears such a profound weight. All of humanity’s deepest emotions – sadness, love, beauty, remorse, loss – are packaged into the 84 fully clothed male figures standing at the edges of the rooftops of the ITV building in London, as commissioned by CALM, the Campaign Against Living Miserably.
The figures themselves would be haunting enough if they were indistinct everymen, like Anthony Gormley’s haunting statues on Crosby beach perhaps, to represent the 84 men whose lives are lost to suicide every single week in the UK.
But no, the figures are not indistinct. Each one represents a real man with a name, a life story, a real family and friends left behind, all of whom courageously volunteered to help the artist Mark Jenkins create the statue. Some of their heart-breaking stories can be read on the Project 84 website.
When photos first appeared on social media on Monday, I spent an inordinate amount of time simply staring at the images, processing what I was seeing, trying to make sense of the constricting power of the artwork. It took me a while to process, before I understood what was so immensely powerful in the images.
Suicide, as we invariably conceptualise it, is the most profoundly lonely phenomenon. Had CALM commissioned a single figure, standing alone, contemplating his final step, we would all have nodded sadly and looked away. But those 84 men are not alone. They are shoulder to shoulder, a crowd, a team, a community. Each one might have ended his life at a moment of terrible isolation and separation from the world, but here he is one of far too many, standing as if alive, trapped together, united in time.
When we talk of suicide we talk of individuals. We talk of individual problems, individualistic solutions. If only that man had talked more maybe he’d have survived. If only that man had accessed mental health care he would still be with us. If only that man weren’t so crippled by toxic masculinity he might have sorted himself out. If only he had done something different. If only he had done something different.
If only he had done something different.
Project 84 demands that we ask a different question: what if we had done something different?
Suicide is a direct consequence of social, political and economic conditions and decisions. It is no coincidence that the global economic crash of 2008 was immediately followed by a global spike in suicide rates, with males representing over three quarters of all cases. Suicide is an issue which extends far beyond health and mental illness, indeed around half of suicide casualties have never been in contact with mental health services. Those who have will find themselves in a system which has been stripped to the bone by NHS cuts. In the House of Commons yesterday Jeremy Corbyn not only confronted the Prime Minister with the facts on male suicide as highlighted by Project 84, but noted too that the UK’s mental health trusts have been underfunded to the tune of £105 million compared to six years ago.
It is not just mental health services either. Efforts to reduce suicide rates will certainly involve reversing cuts to drug and alcohol treatment services, the prison service, trauma recovery services, adult social care services, youth services and all the other strands of social fabric which weave together to create a safety net.
There are broader political considerations too. CALM rightly demand that there should be national quality standards for suicide prevention and bereavement support, which at present are left to the lottery of local authority provision. There needs to be better implementation of local suicide prevention plans and better information recording and data around suicide. These are all practical, political steps which could and should fall under the authority of a specific government minister.
The solutions must also be social, however. Our efforts to dismantle patriarchal habits and create a more fair and equal society seem to founder when it comes to raising boys to value themselves and each other. Too many of us, as men, measure our worth and value as protectors and providers in a world where that is not always possible or necessary. Male suicide rates will not fall until men learn to value themselves and we learn to value men as loving fathers, as friends, lovers, human beings, in ways that go far beyond a paycheque.
Those male figures, standing high on the edge above London, represent tragic loss, heartbreak and bereavement and our overriding reaction must be sadness and grief. But I like to think they offer something more. They offer a glimmer of hope, hope that people want things to change, need things to change and are prepared to fight at the highest levels to ensure they do.
Need to talk? CALM for advice, support lines and webchat.
You can also contact the Samaritans or call 116 123.
Samaritans In the US 1 (800) 273-TALK.