Shining a light on the scourge of suicide

Editor Jon Sutton reflects on BBC3's 'Professor Green: Suicide and me'.

Professor Green: Suicide and me

BBC3

Produced and directed by Adam Jessel

If I found this very tough to watch, how hard must it have been for rapper Professor Green to film? Seven years ago, his Dad Peter took his own life, aged just 43. Green was 24 at the time, and has been ‘tormented’ by his loss ever since. This programme, in BBC3’s ‘Breaking the mould’ season, was his brave attempt to ‘shine a light on the scourge of male suicide in Britain’, and to help him ‘move on to a new happier chapter’ in his life.

Green (real name Stephen Paul Manderson) wants people to truly understand what an extensive problem suicide is. So he begins with alarming statistics: in Britain, 6000 people a year die by suicide, over 80 per cent male. It’s the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.

Green mostly looks for answers by reaching out to those who were closest to his father, but he also speaks to psychologist Professor Rory O’Connor, leader of the University of Glasgow’s Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab and President of the International Academy of Suicide Research. ‘A real professor versus one with slight more questionable credentials’, Green notes. Professor O’Connor has himself been affected by suicide, and his contribution was to relate the research to Peter’s story. ‘There is never or very rarely a single factor,’ he said, and Green admitted that when it came to his father’s last years ‘everything that could have happened, did’ (including his own brother’s suicide: exposure to suicide increases your own risk). O’Connor’s reading of the science is that ‘entrapment is so fundamental’: suicide notes often conclude ‘I just don’t know what else to do’.

It was interesting, if tear-jerking, to hear Green’s immediate reactions to hearing his Dad had taken his own life: ‘anger, upset, confusion’. He clearly and inevitably still harbors a lot of anger towards his father: ‘he’s a fucking muppet’… ‘such a silly sod’… ‘I had a right to be that angry… I had a right to be a damn sight angrier than that’. But again Professor O’Connor importantly brings the personal story back to the research base: suicide is often seen as a selfish act, but people killing themselves don’t see themselves as selfish. In fact, they see themselves as a burden on others, so everyone will be better off without them: ‘I felt totally worthless, just a stain on life’, says survivor Ben.

The notion of masculinity looms large. As much as Green's Dad is chided for hiding his demons – ‘as far as I was concerned he didn’t have a worry in the world’, says his best friend – Green is also told that ‘Peter should have been more of a man where you was concerned’. At the Maytree, a North London ‘sanctuary for the suicidal’, we hear that twice as many women have come through the doors, and that ‘male guests are always trying to rationalise why they feel this way… [looking for] a solution-based approach’ rather than simply opening up to their emotions.

Green, who looks about eight foot tall and has a prominent (and slightly ironic) ‘Lucky’ tattoo on his neck, might say that in a typical male way he is scared of appearing vulnerable, but he lays himself bare for the sake of his message. ‘People can see me laugh, why shouldn’t they see me cry?’, he concludes. ‘No matter whether you’re six foot tall, ten foot wide, just talk’, his Aunt pleads.

One of Green’s most vital messages, in a role play at the Maytree, is that no matter how hopeless life feels, ‘there is always change coming’. My hope is that there is change coming on a wider scale: both through a reduction in stigma (we hear from a bereaved father that ‘just like in the olden days, the cancer, the AIDS, people are scared to talk about it’), and also by a generational shift. Professor O’Connor says that in the 1990s it was young men who were most likely to die by suicide, now it is the same cohort in their middle age. ‘Men of that generation, described as the buffer generation… their Dads were ‘stiff upper lip’, their kids are much more comfortable talking about their emotions or seeking help, but they’re stuck in the middle, they don’t know what to do.’

It would be easy to avoid this programme: as Professor Green himself says, ‘you want to empty a room, you bring up suicide’. But the least Green deserves in return for ‘having conversations I’d never had before, with my own family’ is that we don’t avert our gaze from suicide, we watch and we do the same. It helped him - ‘I’ve had better nights’ sleep after some of the days we’ve been filming this’ – and now talking could help many others.

- Watch the programme now on BBC iPlayer, and find information and support. Read more about suicide in our archive

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Comments

I felt this documentary was such a brave move and as I saw his journey unfold it made me realize how much others had to gain from his family's journey. The most misunderstood perception as to why people commit suicide was put out there which i feel is often under-said; these people aren't selfish in the act of suicide they often feel they are doing their family and friends a favour... (how awful must that place feel).