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If we’re serious about reducing male suicide, we need to stop blaming men for their own despair

Today, September 10th, is World Suicide Prevention day. This year the date follows hard on the heels of devastating news about the rise in male suicides in England and Wales – now at their highest level for 20 years.

One would think that this appalling statistic would trigger urgent efforts to understand what is disproportionately happening to men that’s driving them to such despair.

And there are many such issues — fathers’ lack of contact with children post separation, the dearth of services for male victims of domestic abuse, hugely disproportionate numbers of homeless men and male prisoners, to name just a few.

Disturbingly, however, the knee-jerk response seems to have been to blame men themselves.

‘Too proud’

The Times led with: “Male suicides have reached their highest level in two decades, prompting fears that some desperate middle-aged men are too proud to seek help.”

“Too proud”. That throw-away two-word phrase sums up a casually dismissive attitude to this devastating issue that puts the responsibility firmly back on men and their supposedly fragile egos, rather than asking important questions about the web of social forces that drive men to depression and suicide in the first place.

Commenting on their own figures, the ONS also implied that it’s men’s stubbornness that’s the problem. The ONS said: “Higher rates of suicide among middle-aged men in recent years might be because this group is more likely to be affected by economic adversity, alcoholism and isolation. It could also be that this group is less inclined to seek help.”

What’s bizarre about the ONS comment, is that it cites some of the grave gendered social issues that are likely to be behind the spike in male suicides – surely asking how and why unemployment, substance abuse and loneliness seem to be hitting men especially hard, would be the appropriate questions.

‘A man’s world’

In a recent extract from a new book on men’s mental health, also published by The Times, Matt Rudd writes: “On paper these men have done everything right… Most importantly, they are not women. That is quite the advantage. They are men in a man’s world. They are dads. Imagine if they had been mums. Much harder.”

It’s certainly not “quite the advantage” for dads who are separated from their children, who are overlooked in screening for post-natal depression, who are experiencing domestic abuse, or who are shouldering the gendered role of breadwinner. But if this is the starting point for our approach to tackling men’s mental health and suicide, it’s hardly surprising so little is being done about it.

The assumption that men are inherently privileged and therefore have no-one to blame but themselves, has permeated the discussion not just of men’s mental health, but men’s health in general, and it is a major barrier to any serious action on these issues.

In reality it is outside factors that make suicide more likely – money, work, isolation, family breakdown, child contact issues, domestic/sexual abuse and poor education. A sense of purpose is key, even more so when the  ‘protector and provider’ role remains such an intrinsic part of the male mental DNA which is why economic downturns have such a devastating effect when they lose control of economic/financial circumstances and their ability to enact this role.  

The latest ONS figures do not cover the period of lockdown and there are grave concerns that we may see a perfect storm of conditions underpinning male suicide, that could make the numbers even worse still.

If we genuinely want to address this appalling and devastating issue, we need to move away from simplistic demands that men ask for help, to exploring how society and services can better help men.

Dan Bell

CEO, Men and Boys Coalition