Big boys do cry (and die).
The recent suicide by a young former soldier – deployed to Iraq at 18 – has once again focussed attention on PTSD, depression and the shocking numbers of males that take their own lives.
The single largest cause of death of men under 45 in the UK is suicide. An equally stunning statistic is that of the more than 6000 British lives lost to suicide each year, nearly 75 percent are male – and the rates of death by this cause are climbing.
What on earth is going on? There are many factors involved, but the search for clear answers is being hindered by an unwillingness of many authorities, institutions and departments to actually talk about it. This growing problem needs to be brought out into the light of day.
Even more intriguing, figures from the Mental Health Foundation show that, in England, women are almost three times as likely as men to have mental health problems. But there’s no evidence to suggest depression hits men harder than women. The key difference is that men tend not to talk about their emotions. They ‘bottle it up’. Indeed, in many cases, it’s the ‘bottle’ they turn to; rates of alcoholism for men in the UK are three times that of women.
From a very early age, boys (openly or more subtly) are expected to live up to the masculine image of strength, resilience and toughness. ‘Big boys don’t cry’ and if there are problems or setbacks, boys are expected to ‘man-up’.
Even in these changing times of gender equality, there’s still a subliminal expectation and a perceived need in men’s minds for them to be the provider and protector. Failure to do so can lead to dangerous thinking which is compounded by an unwillingness, or inability, to talk it through. Men just don’t chat about their emotions down the pub.
Added to this is growing confusion about men’s role in the world. Modern society doesn’t need men to break their backs down a coal mine for eight hours a day or charge into battle. The typical job now is in the service industry in a role that a woman can do just as easily and, hopefully, on equal pay.
There has been a significant increase in suicide rates among men since 2007, which has led some researchers to suggest that economic recession may be a factor. A recent report from the Samaritans found “men from the lowest social class, living in the most deprived areas, are up to ten times more likely to end their lives by suicide”.
Certainly, losing your job — involving the idea that you’re the ‘bread winner’ and that employment gives purpose and meaning – can produce a downward cycle of depressive thinking, particularly if there’s no one to turn to or you think its weak or feeble to do so.
Women, of course, are victims of economic pressures as well, but research suggests that men attach greater importance to job status and income.
The other key factor for men is divorce. It’s a life event that makes them three times as likely to attempt suicide if it happens. The average age of divorce for men in the UK is now 45. More than 120,000 British marriages end in divorce every year. A Samaritans report states that men in middle age are “dependent primarily on female partners for emotional support” and, from the age of 30 onwards tend to have fewer individual friendships than women. Typically, it is the male partner in a marriage that is likely to come out of a divorce financially worse off.
There are organisations in the UK trying to do something about rising rates of male suicide.
The leading group is CALM – Campaign Against Living Miserably – which recently launched a new campaign, #Project84, which tells the stories of 84 men lost to suicide, representing the 84 men who take their own lives every week in the UK.
Project84 is about creating change by raising awareness in the public and government of the horrific level of male suicides.
Working along side CALM is Sue Baker OBE, Director of Time to Change, the mental health anti-stigma campaign run by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness. Baker says, “Our research shows that men are ‘lagging behind’ when it comes to attitudes towards those of us with mental health problems. Although things are improving, men are still more likely than women to hold prejudicial attitudes and are less knowledgeable on the topic of mental health as a whole. In practical terms, this can mean men don’t see mental health as relevant to them and don’t reach out for vital support for fear of being judged”.
So, it’s that fear – that worry about the stigma – that is causing men to suffer in silence. That silence needs to end if rates of male suicide are to be reversed. Men need to look out for each other – it’s about being a good friend; listening to another man’s concerns.
Greater provision of counselling is also vital.
The Chair of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), Dr Andrew Reeves said recently, “Traditionally, more women than men have sought counselling, and this is not a surprise. The concept of talking about feelings and exploring emotional and psychological difficulties has for many years been seen as a’female’ rather than a ‘male’ trait.
“Thankfully, things are beginning to change with more men seeking counselling and seeing it as both a positive and relevant source of help.”