The Alcohol Stories Project was inspired by work I did with the Samaritans in 2012. I reviewed literature about masculinity, social class and suicide as part of a multi-disciplinary project seeking to generate explanations for the higher rates of suicide found among men, aged 35-55, who live in poorer areas. One of the recurring themes in the review was the potential role of alcohol in suicide generally, and for men in this social group particularly.
Alcohol use is often implicated in completed suicides, and in non-fatal self-harm. Having an alcohol use disorder is also thought to increase the chance that someone will die by suicide, though estimates vary. What I found, though, was that while there was a fairly substantial body of literature which examined the link between suicide and alcohol use using quantitative methods, or clinical perspectives; there was little research that involved speaking to men themselves about alcohol use and mental health.
Qualitative approaches are important in research on suicide, and alcohol, since each of these have different meanings, and are used/practiced in diverse ways across social groups. As such, knowing about prevalence, correlations and risk-factors only tells part of the story. Alcohol-use in Scotland is culturally valued, though there are long-standing, and on-going attempts to challenge this. Alcohol is imbued with extremely positive meanings, and is embedded in the daily lives of the majority. Research by Carol Emslie and colleagues has found that for men in mid-life, alcohol use is framed as facilitating social bonds and enabling talk that might otherwise be difficult or uncomfortable – about emotions, distress, disappointment and regret.
Suicide research has been slow to incorporate qualitative methods, though there are important exceptions. Research that involves speaking to those who have experienced suicidal thoughts or actions, friends and relatives of those who have died, or looking more broadly at how suicide is constructed in public discourse, can tell us much about the process and meaning of suicide. Work by John Oliffe has been particularly significant in shedding light on the experiences of men who have been suicidal, or experienced depression. His work highlights the difficulty that men face in identifying distress, and seeking help, given that ‘traditional’ forms of masculinity privilege strength, silence and stoicism.
Research on alcohol use, and on suicide and mental ill-health, offers useful leads for further research. The Alcohol Stories project is an attempt to follow some of these. The project seeks to focus in on the way in which alcohol use and mental health are talked about by men in mid-life, who have experienced mental ill-health. While the intersections between alcohol use and poor mental health have emerged out of other projects, Alcohol Stories is an attempt to look directly at alcohol use, mental health and suicide.
I am using biographical methods – which means that I am encouraging men to talk about their ‘life story’, to help me – and the men – locate mental health and alcohol use at different points across their lives. A biographical approach is important for many reasons, not least that it is hypothesised that the current high rate of suicides among men in mid-life in the UK is a result of a ‘cohort effect’. This pilot study will begin to answer wider contextual questions about this – what is it about this cohort that might make them particularly vulnerable to suicide? How do any potential vulnerabilities (such as de-industrialisation) emerge in the accounts of men themselves? Additionally a biographical perspective looks at how men themselves frame their use of alcohol, and their mental health (positive and negative) historically.