Each time suicide reaches the headlines our attention is directed at particular groups – middle-aged men, people in deprived areas or in certain professions. This is splitting hairs.
The latest statistics underline the message that Calm (the campaign against living miserably) has maintained for years; gender runs through UK suicide statistics like letters in a stick of rock. The highest suicide rate is among men aged 30-44, in men aged 45 to 59 suicide has increased significantly between 2007 and 2011, and in 2011 more men under 35 died from suicide in the UK than road accidents, murder and HIV/Aids combined. Even in the 60+ age group, men were three times more likely to take their lives than women.
Recent University of Liverpool research indicated that the economic downturn was likely to add 1,000 suicides over and above what we could expect; with around 800 more men and 200 women killing themselves as a direct result of the recession. The research proposed that the government needed to look at interventions and policies that will sustain and support jobs. Other research by the Samaritans has focused on older men, concluding that these men, at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, were emotionally illiterate, which explained their high suicide rate.
But surely the big question is why is suicide three to four times more likely in men of any age group?
A complacent explanation for the difference is that men attempt more violent forms of suicide and are therefore more likely to be successful. But take Scottish deaths from 1974-2008. In 1974 the number of Scottish male deaths from suicide stood at 278, women at 264 – numbers then diverged dramatically. Male suicides rose year-on-year to a high of 679 in 1993, and the figures remained high. Meanwhile female suicides only exceeded 300 in two years during the whole period.
Poverty and mental health issues affect both genders. The variable factor is culture and society; how we expect men to act, and how they feel they can behave. Suicide prevention work must, therefore, address this.
Men, regardless of age group, often don’t recognise when they are depressed. Depression in men is likely to be signalled by anger, so won’t be recognised either by men themselves or by women as depression. Ironically, they may end up in jail rather than a GP’s surgery. For a man to ask for help is seen as failure, because by convention men are supposed to be in control at all times.
It seems to be accepted that men just won’t ask for help or therapy. Calm’s phonelines tell a different story. We’ve found that if you promote a service aimed at men, in a manner that fits with their lifestyle and expectations, they will ask for help. We struggle to keep up with demand.
We believe that if we are to combat suicide we have to ensure that all men are aware of the symptoms of depression and feel able to access help without being seen as less of a man for doing so. If boys can’t talk about stuff but girls can then we should tackle this. If men can’t get to their surgery because it’s closed during the working week, then address this. Risk assessments need to reflect gender diversity and women need to be aware of the symptoms of depression in men. We need to challenge the idea that a “strong and silent” man is desirable and challenge the notion that men talking, showing emotion and being “sensitive” is weak.
The number of male suicides over the age of 15 in England and Wales from 2001 to 2011 totalled 38,621. The number of women in the same period totalled 12,780. A difference of 25,841. All of these numbers are too high, but for me the stark contrast between men and women is 25,841 reasons to talk about gender.
The Guardian newspaper January 23 2013