Man Down: Male Suicide the Silent Crisis
Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide. For further help and support in the UK the Samaritans Charity is always there for you. Call 116 123. In the US the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Crisis support in Australia is 13 11 14.
You are not alone.
Men in the UK are three times more likely to take their own lives than women. It is the single biggest cause of death for men under the age of 45.
Across the world, suicide rates are significantly higher for men compared to women, especially in high income countries such as, the USA, Germany and the UK.
Former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, described suicide as "a massive taboo." The reasons for this are relatively easy to explain. Before the 1961 Suicide Act, taking your own life was illegal in Britain. The term to “commit suicide,” harks back to when it sat alongside crimes “committed murder,” and “committed manslaughter.”
To this day, suicide still carries with it a connotation of dishonour and shame, as if those who do it have taken "the easy way out,” and are too weak to cope with life’s problems.
As a society we react to high-profile examples of suicide like the fashion designer Alexander McQueen (2010) Wales football manager Gary Speed (2011), or film star Robin Williams (2014), with first, shock, then deep sadness and a sense of ‘what a waste.’ We rarely go on to discuss what this means for men’s mental health.
To understand why so many men believe ending their own lives is the only way out, is fundamental to knowing how we can prevent it.
So why are men more likely to take their own lives?
1. Impulsive Behaviour
Men have generally been found to be more impulsive than women. Men are over-represented in aggressive behaviour, accidents, violence-related injuries, drug use, extreme sports, and criminal behaviour, all of which have been linked to impulsivity. This affects suicidal behaviour in two key ways; by influencing the way the suicidal act happens, and how the individual reacts to stressors.
A study found that the proportion of males and females who made a medically serious suicide attempt was almost equal, but that twice as many women used non-violent methods. Men are more likely to use lethal methods such as, hanging or firearms, leaving little chance of rescue and survival.
2. Masculinity and Help-seeking
Research shows that men are more likely to not seek professional help for depression or even from friends. It is thought that is why rates of diagnosed and treated depression are around twice as high in women than in men.
There are several reasons why this may be the case. Gender roles, particularly in Western culture, places great value on traditional masculine characteristics such as self-reliance, a lack of vulnerability, and emotional control. All of which clash with help-seeking behaviours that involve relying on others, powerlessness, and recognising an emotional problem.
Inevitably, masculine gender roles makes it more difficult for men to recognise and seek help for depression.
3. The Masked Depression Framework
The masked depression framework claims depression in men can be hidden by externalising symptoms through behaviours like substance abuse and aggression. In short, men’s responses to depression are shaped by cultural norms and expectations regarding masculinity.
This makes it harder for men to first, recognise and label emotional distress. Secondly, to seek help and lastly, for medical professionals to diagnose and treat a mental health problem masked by self-destructive behaviour.
It is little wonder then, that one third of young people in custody have a mental health disorder. This is three times higher than the general population.
What can we do to help?
Encouraging open and honest discussions about men’s mental health is key. Well-known public figures, Prince Harry, The Rock, and Michael Phelps to name a few, are opening doors to young and old men alike, feeling more comfortable about revealing their own struggles.
But this needs to go much further, much deeper and it needs to start much earlier. We all learn gendered attitudes and behaviours from a young age based on cultural values and norms. “Big boys don’t cry,” and “pink princesses,” seeps into every fibre of how we parent our children.
It is time to reflect on our own internalised beliefs of what it means to be a man. It is time to change in how we talk to and treat young boys from the moment they enter this big, wide world. It is time to embrace a more inclusive masculinity where feeling and expressing emotions is seen as a strength, not a weakness.