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Male Suicide: Covid 19 and the Perfect Storm

As the country starts to look at a post-lockdown future and what that will bring, it will be increasingly important not to just to look at rebuilding the economy and social relationships but also the negative consequences on mental health.

During this period and in the subsequent months, there is a real fear that a perfect storm of factors that negatively impact on the mental wellbeing of men will see an increase in the already high male suicide rate.

In the last recession (2008-2010), an average of 4,292 (16.1 per 100,000) men took their own lives over those three years (75% of the total). Research in 2015 estimated that the recession meant that 878 more men ended their life than would have been expected had the then downward trend continued; compared with an extra 123 women.

‘Deepest recession for over 300 years

Professor David Gunnell at the University of Bristol said at the time: “The consequences of recession on individuals – unemployment, the risk of losing a home, or financial difficulties caused by debt, wage cuts, demotions, reduced hours or disputes over benefits – are all likely to be important contributors to the rises.”

All predictions are that the country is moving into a significant downturn because of Covid-19. The Bank of England has said that gross domestic product (GDP) could fall by 25% in the second quarter. For 2020 as a whole, the economy could shrink by 14%, marking this the deepest recession for more than three centuries. The last recession saw the economy shrink by 6% (2008-09) and unemployment is now  predicted to rise from the current 4% to 9% (the highest peak was 8.4% in 2011) . This though masks the suddenness of the loss in income and jobs for many self-employed, those on zero-hour contracts and those with seasonal work. Often, when a recession is on the horizon, there is an element of preparedness that people try and put in place to soften the blow if it comes. However, this time there has been no opportunity given the suddenness.

The suicide rate sadly rose sharply in 2018 with 4,903 men taking their lives (17.2 per 100,000) the highest rate since 2013. If we take the research from the previous recession as an indicator, it is not unfeasible to expect the number of men taking their own lives just on the economic factors alone to be well over 5,000 . It is likely to start to draw it closer to rates not seen since the start of the century (18.4 per 100,000 in 2000).

However, the particular impact on male suicide rates of Covid 19 reaches far beyond the economic impact.

Money, work, isolation — a perfect storm

The core indicators on the likelihood of men to take their own lives are societal. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with men’s mental health, 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.  

Looking at the impact of Covid-19, we see an increase in isolation – a problem for older men especially. Sport, group activities and pubs all closed. Family contact is much reduced if at all and of course lost jobs means lost social networks.

Family breakdown and child contact becomes heightened. The ManKind Initiative domestic abuse charity and others have reported increasing calls from separated fathers who are now being denied regular and arranged contact with their children. Even when these are legal arrangements and the Government advice allows it. Related to this is an increase in domestic abuse where a male victim becomes even more isolated from friends family and work – making escape harder.

Men with poor education have less control over their lives and therefore the loss of work or regular work will also take its toll; we know that poor, middle aged men are the cohort at most risk of suicide; we also know that men in specific occupation groups are at greater risk – men in low skilled, trades, and construction industry employment.

A grim picture lays ahead. The recession is likely to cause an increase in male suicide, like in all recessions. However this time there are a range of additional dangers on top, creating a perfect storm that is likely to cause a spike in the male suicide rate.

So what can be done? Clearly more investment in employment retention, more investment in male-friendly mental health programmes, and charities and campaigns targeted at men would be a start. Plus an end to the alarming narrative that suggests men are to blame for taking their own lives with no consideration of the reasons why or what approaches should be taken to lower the risk. A national men’s health strategy would also be a great help in normalising men’s health as part of the public health discourse and as a lever for action –  as demonstrated by male health responsive strategies in Australia and Ireland. And of course a swift bounce in the economy and a vaccine. The lives of men now literally depend on it, irrelevant if they die directly because of this disease.

Mark Brooks OBE, Chair of the ManKind Initiative charity

Paul Hopkins, Director, Mengage

Martin J Seager, Clinical Psychologist

All are members of the Men and Boys Coalition