THE BLOG

Men and Suicide: Why It's a Social Issue

13/11/2015 17:14 GMT | Updated 13/11/2016 10:12 GMT

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HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around masculinity in the 21st Century, and the pressures men face around identity. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, from bringing up young boys to the importance of mentors, the challenges between speaking out and 'manning up' as well as a look at male violence, body image, LGBT identity, lad culture, sports, male friendship and mental illness.

The statistics are clear - in terms of age, gender and socio-economic status, the group most at risk of suicide are men living in the most deprived areas, in their mid-years. The rate of suicide among men is now at its highest level since 2001.

To find out more about what was behind these figures, Samaritans asked experts from the fields of sociology, gender and self-injury, economics and health psychology to explore this issue. We also interviewed men between the ages of 35-55 in the UK and Republic of Ireland who have struggled with suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

Our results found that social, economic and factors within personal lives are affecting the rate of male suicide. While there is clearly a need for more research into these influencers, our study gave us rich information on some of the issues affecting men in the 21st Century.

Masculinity, that is, the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them was identified as causing feelings of failure among men. The research points to a masculine 'gold standard' - the form of masculinity held in the highest regard, to which most men aspire, and against which they measure themselves.

Having a job and being able to provide for your family is still central to 'being a man', this is particularly true for working class men, who still define themselves as being the main bread winner. For many men being unemployed can feel like an inability to achieve what is expected of them, in their role as provider for the family.

The changing face of the labour market over the last 50 years has particularly challenged working class men, due to the decline of traditionally male industries such as manufacturing. It is not simply having a job that is important to fulfil masculine identity but also the kind of job. With the loss of traditional male occupations, working class men have also lost a source of masculine pride.

Men continue to put a great deal of pressure on themselves to live up to this masculine gold standard and consider their inability to meet this as a sign of failure. This is thought to have a particularly profound effect on men in mid-life, caught between their strong and silent fathers and their more individualistic and progressive sons.

Of course, divorce and separation also have an adverse effect on peoples' emotional health. If you are divorced and separated you are at higher risk of suicide than those who are married. Men in mid-life are more likely to be dependent primarily on female partners for emotional support. In relationships women tend to help men recognise their own distress, provide them with care and above all, encourage them to seek help. When a relationship breaks down, the loss of this support in their lives can prove very difficult to cope with.

In addition to this significant loss, when relationships breakdown men may have limited access to their children and more likely to be displaced from their family home. For some this can mean the loss of another source of masculine identity, status and respect - as well as adding to their isolation.

While unemployment and relationship breakdown are difficult for most people, they tend to be felt intensely by men in mid-life. Generally speaking, women continue to have better access to their children in the event of a relationship breakdown. Women also tend to have a much wider support network and buoyant social life to help them with such adversity.

For men in mid-life though, unemployment and relationship breakdown can feel like a failure to achieve what is expected of them as a man. It is, if you like, disempowering and an affront to masculine dignity. To exacerbate this, mid-life feels like a point when the possibilities of making changes in these areas, such as retraining and building a different career, become limited. Men in mid-life can feel devastated by earlier life choices and are prone to ruminating over perceived 'mistakes'.

We also know systematic socio-economic inequalities increase suicide risk. While many suicides are associated with mental illness issues, there are also many suicides whose immediate and long-term causes lie in economic factors, putting those in geographic areas where there is high unemployment and economic deprivation at higher risk. This has not been recognised in suicide prevention strategies which experts suggest tend to be dominated by psychiatric and mental health research.

Men are far less positive about getting formal emotional support for the issues outlined above. Worryingly, in response to these difficulties, men are more likely to take risks such as drinking, fighting or gambling, trying to show that they are 'manly' when faced with adversity. In fact, this is likely to make their situation worse. The masculine ideal suggests that men should never be depressed, anxious or unable to cope. It is vital that we overcome this and encourage men to access informal and formal support earlier on, before they reach crisis point.

With all this in mind, where do we go from here? The onus cannot be on men alone to change current suicide trends. Suicide prevention policy and practice must take account of men's beliefs, concerns and context - in particular their views of 'what it is to be a man'. We need to move on from trying to persuade men to behave like women, recognising their needs and how societal expectations have shaped their behaviour. It is down to service providers to remove barriers to men engaging with services and design these to be more effective.

Good mental and physical health is a fundamental human need and health policy must start to give both equal weighting. To close the gap, we urgently need more investment in information about mental health services and diagnosis; treatments and therapies; mental health research and public awareness campaigns that promote good mental health and wellbeing.

If you, or anyone you know, needs someone to listen, talk to Samaritans. At Samaritans, we know that given the time and space to talk about what is bothering them, people find it easier to work out a way through. You can tell us anything, it always stays between us.

Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year, providing a safe place for anyone who is struggling to cope. Please call free on 116 123, email jo@samaritans.org, or visit www.samaritans.org to find details of the nearest branch.

To blog on the site as part of Building Modern Men, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here, and for more about our partnership with Southbank Centre's Being A Man festival, click here.