The gap between male and female suicide rates has increased over the last 30 years; currently four out of every 5 deaths by suicide in the UK are men. Numerous explanations have been put forward, one of which suggests that men are less likely than women to a) share problems with friends; and b) access talking therapies.
For instance, a campaign earlier this year by the Self Esteem Team aimed to ‘inspire’ men to open up about their problems and worries; implying that if men stop ‘swallowing [their] feelings’ and ‘just soldiering on regardless’ then perhaps they might kill themselves less often. The campaign received a lot of media coverage, was supported by celebrities including Steven Fry and included a social media campaign where men were encouraged to name their worries publicly.
For many reasons, this type of campaign is to be welcomed. It is refreshing to see distress and suicide being addressed in a non-medical, non-judgemental manner which is aimed at tackling widely held cultural beliefs about men and masculinity. However, there are also a number of concerns about the discursive link between male openness about feelings and high suicide rates. Focusing on talk, for instance, does not necessarily address structural inequalities, or other aspects of masculinities, which might also contribute to the discrepancy between male and female suicide rates.
As part of an on-going pilot study, funded by Alcohol Research UK, I have been interviewing men who have experienced suicidal thoughts or actions. Their stories provide some support to the idea that men find it difficult to ‘open up’ about their worries and problems. However, participants in the study have also told of thwarted attempts to ‘seek help’ – where services have not responded or simply not been there.
The worries articulated by (mostly successful, rich) men in the #switchonthelight campaign concern important issues regarding fear of failure, experiences of panic, feelings of inadequacy. To a certain extent these declarations normalise the discussion of negative feelings among men. However, in contrast, the concerns that emerge for men in the Alcohol Stories study go beyond this. Crucially they include extremely difficult experiences and feelings: job loss, relationship breakdown, prison sentences, abusive interpersonal relationships, suicide attempts and thoughts, dysfunctional family relationships.
These findings raise significant challenges for explanations for male suicide which focus overly on ‘talking’ and ‘open-ness’. Rates of suicide are much higher for men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, for those who have insecure or no housing, for those who are unemployed. I would suggest that it may be much less possible for men who do not embody ‘successful’ masculinity via professional status or economic security to ‘open up’ about their problems in the manner suggested by the #switchonthelight campaign. As such, we need to remain cautiously supportive of such initiatives, whilst maintaining a close eye on the significant structural inequalities which shape problems like male suicide.
Based on a paper given at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, August 2015