The rate of male suicide in England and Wales last year reached its highest level for two decades, new figures have revealed.
Men accounted for three-quarters of suicide deaths registered in 2019, making up 4,303 of the 5,691 deaths by suicide.
Based on the Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, that puts the rate of male suicides at 16.9 deaths per 100,000, which is the highest since 2000.
Men aged 45 to 49 had the highest suicide rate, at 25.5 deaths per 100,000 males, according to the statistics published ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day (10 September).
“The latest statistics released by ONS don’t make for great reading,” says Simon Gunning, CEO at charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).
“On average 109 people a week died by suicide in 2019 across England and Wales. With men accounting for 75% of suicides, an average of 83 men a week are dying by suicide. That is unacceptable.”
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Why are men so at risk?
According to Gunning there are many, incredibly complex, reasons for the gender bias in suicide.
“We know suicidal thoughts are common amongst men with more than four in 10 men under the age of 45 in the UK have contemplated taking their own lives,” he said. “Yet a staggering 84% of men in the UK say they bottle up their emotions, with nearly half (44%) saying they suppress their emotions often or at least once a day.”
Elizabeth Scowcroft, head of research at Samaritans, agrees there are many psychological, social, cultural and economic factors that could influence male suicide risk.
She points to Samaritans research which has shown that factors like relationship breakdown, unemployment, having to live up to a ‘masculine’ gold standard, and not having the same type of social network as many women, have a role in increasing the risk of suicide for middle-aged men.
“We also know that men who are less well-off and living in the most deprived areas are up to 10 times more likely to die by suicide than more well-off men from affluent areas,” she adds.
Culture of Silence
According to Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity MIND, another contributing factor could stem from men being unwilling or feeling unable to open up if they’re suffering.
“Unhelpful and inaccurate societal assumptions about gender and mental health can prevent men from showing their emotions, talking about their feelings, or asking for help,” he explains.
“Men are generally less likely than women to visit a GP for a physical or mental health problem, meaning problems could go undetected and get worse.”
He adds that women tend to have stronger support networks of friends and family around them.
“Loved ones can be instrumental to improving our wellbeing, providing us with someone to confide in when we are struggling with our mental health,” he explains.
“Men are generally more likely to turn to less effective coping strategies, including alcohol and substance use, which can make our mental health worse.
“That’s why it’s so important that mental health interventions are offered in a range of settings, including through sports, exercise and physical activity groups.”
The Samaritans agree that men may be more open to seeking support via less traditional methods.
“We’ve more recently found through our research that building support and coping mechanisms for men might involve using activities, exercise or music to manage stress or worry, rather than talking, and their relationships may be based more around shared activity than directly speaking about how they’re feeling in more formal support settings,” Scowcroft explains.
Time for change
Despite the cultural stigma surrounding male mental health and suicide, Gunning says we’re moving in the right direction.
“More people than ever are contacting CALM and accessing our services, which is a good sign that we are reaching people and they feel able to reach out for help,” he said.
Buckley agrees that attitudes surrounding male mental health are improving, thanks in large part to anti-stigma movements like Time to Change, a campaign to change how people think and act about mental health, run by charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
“It’s also really helpful and encouraging to see high-profile individuals speak out about their own experiences, particularly male sportspeople, as this helps normalise mental health problems, prompting others to ask for help if they need it,” he adds.
How to help someone struggling with their mental health
According to Gunning, if you’re concerned a male friend or relative is struggling with their mental health, the first step is trying to encourage them to open up.
“If you’re worried that someone you know may be feeling suicidal it can be really hard to know what to say to them,” he says. “But it’s important we do reach out to talk to them.”
Buckley agrees that talking to someone you think might be struggling is important.
“You don’t have to be an expert, just try to ask them how they’re feeling, and listen sensitively and non-judgmentally to their response,” he says.
“If they are not willing or able to open up, you’ve at least let them know you are there for them if and when they want to talk.
“If they are feeling suicidal, call 999 and ask for an ambulance, and stay with them if you think they may take their own life.”
CALM have created a couple of simple measures people can adopt to help someone who might be battling a mental health problem.
“The ALAN method is a tool we developed to help get the conversation started, and make us all more comfortable checking in on someone who seems to be having a tough time. It’s easy to remember and just as easy to do,” Gunning explains.
Ask open questions, such as ‘how are you doing?’. Give the person time to open up if they need. It’s okay to say you’re worried, or that you’re not sure how to start the conversation but you wanted to see if they’re okay. Asking is the very first step in breaking down that wall and making a connection in someone’s time of need.
Listen. Once you’ve asked a question, make sure you actually listen to the answer. Be patient and let them say what they need. Try to just listen, rather than attempting to solve any problem. Lots of people just need to vent – and even by chipping in with advice you could unintentionally cut them off or dismiss their feelings.
Action. Create a plan of action to get them feeling better. It’s a good idea to set SMART goals – tasks that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. So rather than a general ‘I want to feel happier’, break that goal down into more manageable chunks; say, calling and booking a doctor’s appointment by this time next week, or planning to meet up again this coming Friday. Let your friend know what support is out there and arrange a time for you to check back in.
Network. Let them know they’re not in this alone. Build a support network of friends, family, and professionals (a doctor or a therapist, for example), so that the person struggling knows they have people they can turn to in any situation.
For further help and information:-
CALM's helpline and webchat are open from 5pm until midnight, 365 days a year. Call CALM on 0800 58 58 58 or chat to their trained helpline staff online, it’s free, anonymous and confidential.
Or for more information about mental health and how to get help visit Mind.