Men's Health

17 Nov 2022

Why are Suicide Rates so High in Men?

The rate of male suicide is alarmingly high: three out of four suicides in the UK are by men. Globally, one man dies by suicide every minute of every day. To put that into perspective, that’s 90 sons, husbands, brothers and fathers for every 90-minute game of the Football World CupMen are undoubtedly facing a crisis.

From its humble beginnings, the Movember movement has grown to global proportions and made epic advancements into the field of men’s mental health, focusing on prevention, early intervention and health promotion. The powerful message at the core of Movember’s suicide prevention campaign for men is, ‘Be a Man of More Words’.  

But why is it that men are finding it difficult to open up? What does it mean to be masculine? What does it mean to be a man? Society tells us men should be stoic, self-reliant and in control. Whist there in nothing wrong with these qualities per se, in times of struggle they can prevent men and boys from talking to a loved one or seeking out professional support.

There’s not a lot of research into why men take their own lives, but the research that does exist indicates that the pathways to suicide are complex and cumulative, with risk factors linked to a history of adverse childhood experiences, social isolation, misuse of substances, long-term mental or physical illness or bereavement.

Men’s risk of suicide also changes with age and life circumstances. Relationship breakdowns, single status, financial difficulty or unemployment have been shown to be social factors that pose a significantly higher risk for men.

What this all shows is that it’s very difficult to pinpoint a single reason or cause for the high rates of suicide in middle-aged men. Despite this complexity, there are opportunities for prevention.

 

Let’s challenge outdated stereotypes

Mental health struggles can often leave people feeling confused, powerless and vulnerable, which are perfectly valid feelings to experience, yet are seen by the men experiencing them as incompatible with how they ought to present themselves as men.

You’ve probably come across the adage ‘Boys Don’t Cry,’ which tells us a lot about the construction of masculinity in the western world and the pressures that come with it. Vulnerability is so strongly coded as feminine in our society that men often feel as if they must shut down their emotional sides in order to conform to the cultural ideal of manhood. Recent research shows that 55% of 18-24 year-old-men believe that crying in front of others would make them feel less masculine, and 36% of men alter their personalities to appear more manly.

One of the consequences of living in a culture where men are taught to minimise their vulnerability is that they cannot let themselves experience a range of feelings and their full humanity, which leaves them feeling even more alone and disconnected from sources of support.

Mental health stigma is also a huge barrier to why many people, particularly men, don’t seek help. (see our earlier article this month Mental Illness Doesn’t Discriminate | Health Partners Group)

Pop culture glamorises men that don’t know how to deal with feelings in a healthy way and very rarely presents us with alternative options for male characters – stories in which men break the pattern and work through emotional pain in transformative ways are rather rare. 

I watched the series ‘Ted Lasso’ with a mixture of surprise, excitement and curiosity as it followed the more vulnerable path of emotional connection in the male protagonist, Ted, who plays the football manager of a UK team. I thought to myself, “Don’t we need more of that? What might happen if we witnessed more men feeling their feelings unapologetically, men connecting emotionally with women, children and with each other and embracing the full range of their humanity?”

Is it just men that are perpetuating these outdated stereotypes of what it means to be a man, or do we all play a role in challenging them whenever they enter our language, attitudes and behaviours?

We need to reconsider the expectations that we have of men in society and how we view them when they have the courage to show us their vulnerability. Given that men are already shaming themselves for not living up to the ideal characteristics of masculinity, we shouldn’t then be compounding the problem by further shaming them for the open behaviours that we encourage them to demonstrate in the first place.

 

Vulnerability takes courage

According to vulnerability researcher Brene Brown, we need to dispel the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness and reframe it as a truthful measure of courage: the birth place of authenticity and belonging. If we all allowed ourselves and the men in our lives to drop the armour that defends us from being fully seen, we would open ourselves to more connection, spontaneity and meaning in our lives. What can we do to make more room for vulnerability?

 

Don’t bottle up your emotions

In his book Cracking the Armour – Power, Pain and the Lives of Men (1993), Michael Kaufman highlights that when emotions and avenues of emotional release are blocked, the results can be very destructive for men and those around them:

‘For though we might not feel them…those emotions do not go away; they get bottled up and are eventually transformed in one of two ways: they turn into anger and aggression. Or they are turned against ourselves to become self-hate, self-deprecation, physical illness, insecurity or addiction.’

Emotional disconnection comes at a price and can have harmful consequences for our wellbeing and the longer we keep those emotions bottled up, the worse the situation gets. Although the process of working through difficult emotions can be slow and laborious, it’s also necessary for emotional healing.

Our Encouraging Men To Talk | Health Partners Group article provides further practical advice on how we can encourage more connection and emotional expression in men.

 

Dare to be yourself

Cultivating authenticity and accepting ourselves fully, with our strengths, skills, insecurities and flaws, can be freeing. The benefits we will unlock as we drop the armour of conformity to the western ideal of manhood will far outweigh the costs in doing so, for both us and the men in our lives.

I can’t help but think what would happen if we had different expectations of men in society, if we were more aware of our reactions to men who have the courage to be vulnerable, inclusive of our reactions to suicidal thoughts. Would men feel differently about suicide? We don’t have the answers, but it is worth pausing to reflect on the questions.

 

Written by Dr Oana Barnett, Counselling Psychologist for Psych Health, a Health Partners company.

Please note: ‘Men’ in the context of our article may include men, trans women, people who are non-binary who were assigned male at birth and cis gender men; and ‘women’ may include women, trans men, people who are non-binary who were assigned female at birth and cis gender women.