The screaming silence surrounding the issue of male suicide has reached fever pitch with recent studies showing that men between the ages of 20 and 49 are more likely to take their own lives than die of cancer or coronary heart disease. So why aren’t we talking about it?
The past few years have seen mental health awareness occupying a larger space in our public consciousness with a view toward dismantling the stigma sufferers often experience at the hands of an impatient and misinformed society. However, despite calls for better provision and understanding government cuts on healthcare and social services have demonstrated a chilling apathy towards an epidemic which is reaching crisis levels. Among the issues most routinely swept under the rug male suicide bears perhaps the most shocking statistics.
Studies have emphasised a huge gender gulf in UK suicide rates with men accounting for 4,623 of the 6,233 suicides recorded in 2014 (78%). This equates to 12 men every day and one every 2 hours. The numbers are rising too, whilst female suicide rates have stayed relatively consistent across the past decade last year’s male statistics were among the highest on record since 2007.
In the wake of these disturbing figures one would expect complete media frenzy, in the very least some kind of public health announcement showing people where to find help, but no. Despite the scale of the problem male suicide rates remain widely unacknowledged with only 20% of people in the UK aware that it’s the biggest killer of men under 45. How can this be? How, in a society which is engaging with therapy and counselling services more than ever before, can this issue still be so taboo?
Jane Powell is the CEO of CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) a charity working to bring down the rates of male suicide in the UK. She believes that the lack of discussion stems from men feeling too uncomfortable to ask for help.
“It’s very hard for men to reach out I think, our definition of a proper man is someone who doesn’t need any help, he is somebody independent, he looks after everybody else he is strong maybe aggressive and the last thing he is expected to be or even allowed to be is weak or vulnerable in any way.”
Powell’s comments home in on the sad and frustrating reality of strict gender politics. Masculinity is commonly perceived as a pedestal upon which men are unduly bestowed limitless power, access and credibility. Though this is largely correct a more appropriate interpretation might see masculinity as more of a gilded cage – one which grants its occupants boundless privilege but also polices and imprisons them. Men are raised to believe they cannot experience the full spectrum of human emotion without being seen as weak and thus choose to suffer in silence rather than speak out. As statistics have shown this decision is one that can ultimately prove to be life threatening.
CALM’s research has identified men in their early to mid 40’s as the demographic most at risk of suicide – twice as likely as any other age group. This has been attributed to their being part of a ‘buffer generation’ unable to decide whether to be more like their stoic, austere fathers or their expressive, individualistic sons. Rates are also unsettlingly high for men in the LGBT community, who despite showing higher rates of engagement with professional help, are still 30 times more likely to take their own lives than their straight counterparts. A survey conducted by FS Magazine revealed that 24% of gay men in the UK have attempted suicide with a further 54% admitting to having suicidal thoughts.
So what can we do? The answer is, first and foremost, take it seriously. At this point suicide as a gendered phenomenon is an uncomfortable truth that can no longer be denied and the first step is to start being open about it. This might seem like stating the obvious but it bears considerable merit when one considers for example the collective eye roll with which this years International Men’s Day was met.
International Men’s Day was launched to create awareness and encourage conversation about issues like male suicide but most people treated it as another immature attempt by so-called “Meninists” to make light of women’s issues. MP Jess Phillips even went so far as laughing whilst she voted against proposals for an official debate on the issue. Granted, in an age where modern feminism is often greeted with a stadium chorus of “but what about us” from those of us with biceps for brains, using a name which directly mirrors International Women’s Day might have mislead some people. With that said, if we continue to approach the issue of male suicide with the same tone of indifference that men themselves feel the pressure to maintain then the problem is only going to get worse.
Research has shown that the likelihood of men seeking help for a problem correlates directly with the perceived social acceptability of doing so. In short, if we talk then men will talk. Suicide is preventable, more so than any of the physical ailments it’s death toll is dwarfing in the UK today. Though it may be a dark place it’s also one from which anyone can return if given the right support system and we owe it to our father’s, brother’s, partners and friends to start giving it the acknowledgement it crucially deserves.
Words – Deane Laouadi