Deaths of despair: What's killing Scottish men?

Warning: This article contains references to suicide and addiction.

If you are a man, your life will be longer in Iran than Glasgow

Jak Fraser jumped. Ricky Fraser was on the roof with him. "Hearing that noise and then looking over - it replays in my head a lot," Ricky says and stares forward. You know he's seeing it again. "That was my best friend and my brother."

Ten minutes earlier, a photo taken from the edge of a multi-storey car park had pinged his phone. Ricky pulled on a Manchester United jersey and ran out, around the corner and up the ramp until he reached the roof. He joined his brother on the ledge.

"Nobody loves me, nobody cares," Jak said. It was the first and last time Ricky heard his brother felt this way. They talked and Jak agreed to come down but he wasn't prepared to leave just yet. Instead, he initiated a game played by siblings for all of human history, a running race. Ricky resolved to throw the result. "I've got to let him win."

A fist bump and then: "Three, two, one, GO." Ricky trailed a few feet behind Jak the whole way. Their course ran a square, parallel to the ledge. Jak turned the corner of the home straight and hit a full sprint, over the finish line, over the barrier, onto the concrete below.

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Ricky is wearing that same Manchester United strip as we speak. His voice is barely audible. Next to him sit his mother and father, Glaswegian blunt. They've just brought Jak's ashes home.

"People had to stand outside for his funeral but, aye, nobody loved him," Ricky Senior, 38, says.

"I told him every night," Helen, 37, whispers. 

***

Scottish men are self-destructing. I went to Scotland to find out why.

The leading causes of death among 15–44 year-old men in the country are drug-related deaths and suicide. Scotland is now the drug death capital of Europe.

Since the 1980s, deaths from heart disease, cancer and stroke have fallen dramatically, while those from alcohol, suicide and, particularly, drugs have risen to record-breaking levels. In 2020, there were 1,339 drug deaths in Scotland - an all-time high, while alcohol deaths were up by 17% to 1,190 - their highest for a decade.

These are deaths of despair, of self-destructive behaviours. Gender plays a role, with men more likely to succumb than women. So too does inequality, there are more of these deaths in deprived areas.

Behind the grim statistics there’s horror. Talking to the Fraser family, witnessing their raw grief, their anguish at realising their son’s pain, will stay with me. I wanted to find a solution, to understand why Jak Fraser made his final decision. What did he need but didn’t have? Why did he feel so alone, when he was so loved?

I don't share Jak's experience of growing up on a Glasgow housing estate, but I do know what it’s like to be a young man trying to find your place in the world. While he dreamed of becoming an internet entrepreneur, a good job in the same metal factory as his brother paid his wages. 

Children playing outside a Glasgow estate in the 1990s A Glasgow housing estate in the nineties (Credit: Tom Stoddart)

The economic reality in parts of Scotland is bleak. Since the 1980s the economy has undergone big changes, major industries like ship-building, which employed hundreds of thousands, have disappeared, with the benefits of North Sea oil money largely confined to Aberdeen and the north east. Then came the financial crash in 2007, and austerity, which made life harder for those already struggling.

Fewer jobs, lower wages, less welfare.

If your sense of self is largely informed by an “I put food on the table” stereotype, what happens when you can’t afford fish and chips?

The entire community was laid off

Brian Scott, 55, has lived in Possilpark, northwest Glasgow all his life. Locally, Possil is a byword for poverty and drugs. It’s visible in the vodka-ravaged faces and the proliferation of betting shops and pharmacies. Male life expectancy there is just 66 years old - the average for Scotland is just over 76 years. It was named the UK's most deprived area in 2018. But it wasn't always like this.

In the late 1880s Possil was a thriving area with a fast-growing population. At its centre was Saracen Foundry, a metalworks which lent its name to roads and a local pub. But like so many other factories it closed in the mid 20th century, driving up unemployment. Today, the site where it once stood, 99 Saracen Street, is home to the region’s drug and alcohol recovery service.

Men outside the modern day Saracen Bar Men outside the modern day Saracen Bar

"You didn't just have one factory closing down with hundreds of people being laid off, you had the whole community being laid off. It knocked the stuffing out of us," Brian says while sipping a coke in a local cafe. "That's why a lot of people turn to drugs, there's nothing else for them."

"After you meet someone, what's the first thing they ask you after your name? It's 'What do you do?'"

Jobs flowed out of Possil as heroin flowed in but Brian, unlike many of his peers, got a good gig working as an NHS nurse - until he took a hard fall onto concrete at work, leaving him disabled and unable to work.

The whole point of being is to earn - without that you’ve got no status

Brian is one of the 2.8 million people in Scotland, over half of the population, receiving some sort of security benefit or tax credit. He’s found it a gruelling process. "If you don't have mental health issues when you first deal with the benefits agencies," he says, "you soon will."

"I broke into tears after a meeting because I couldn't make head nor tail of the form. Asking about your toilet habits, 'Can you pick up your trousers? Can you put on your underwear?' I left feeling humiliated... there's only so much your body and soul can take."

Brian describes himself as "a typical west of Scotland guy," stoic, tough, taking pride in enduring hardship and repressing the resulting emotions. "The men are the ones who go out and earn for the family. The whole point of being is to earn. If that's taken away you've got no status, you're fighting the benefits system."

Brian Scott looks out across Glasgow from Possilpark Brian Scott looks out across Glasgow from Possilpark

You're sent from pillar to post seeking support for your mental health

Across Scotland, men are forming new friendships based on their mutual experiences of addiction, isolation and low self-esteem.

Men Matter Scotland is a community-led charity that helps men fight against traditional stereotypes. They operate out of a building called 'The Hub' - where people can retreat for a game of FIFA or pool. They organise group activities like mountain biking and painting, as well as the services more familiar in post-austerity Britain: a food bank, addiction support and counselling. And something I’ve not come across before, a toy bank for dads to help them keep their dignity around their kids. 

The entrance to Men Matter Scotland's hub The entrance to Men Matter Scotland's hub

"You're sent from pillar to post seeking support for your mental health," Gregor Ritchie, 32, one of the charity's founders, tells me. "Even if you are seen, you go to your therapist and your session is over. Life's back over to you now."

 After overcoming his own “crippling anxieties” Gregor resolved to help others. I instantly feel at ease in his company. As we enter one of the hub's therapy rooms, he jokingly refers to it as "the crying room," gesturing toward a large box of Kleenex on a coffee table. "You'll see, there's not many left."

Gregor Ritchie sporting his Men Matter Scotland t-shirt

Gregor says the financial cost to the state of an individual suicide is estimated at £800,000, when you take into account the lost productivity and the support services required to help those left behind deal with the impact of that death. The UK parliament’s own research puts the number at £1.6 million. Solely from an economic perspective, it makes sense to invest smaller sums of money in organisations like Gregor's. 

"A baby's born, everybody thinks it's amazing, it's valuable, it's beautiful, it's worthy, it's precious - and it is," he says. "But why do you get to a certain age and all those qualities and characteristics just disappear? They don't. We are still the same people, with the same worth and value. Society wants us to try and forget that - as a community we've got to remind each other." 

Men Matter Scotland are helping the Fraser family, particularly the younger Ricky, come to terms with Jak’s death. He's been on camping trips and hungout at the Hub. “It’s really helped - having someone to talk to," Ricky tells me.

Back in the Fraser family's front room, it’s nearing the end of my time with them. Ricky Senior wonders aloud: "I don't know what's fucking worse. Us sitting here with the aftermath," his wife turns pale and begins to gag. "Or how alone he felt." Helen gets up, her body convulsing with dry heaves. She leaves the room to be sick with grief.

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article help and support is available by contacting the Samaritans. 116123 | www.samaritans.org

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