Alcohol Stories

Men, alcohol & mental health

Alcohol Stories: Exploring accounts and practices of alcohol use, suicide and self-harm

Mind the bodies

Blog written for the Institute for Alcohol Studies Blog, in advance of a talk I gave summarising some of the findings from the Alcohol Stories project, at Alcohol Concern Cymru’s Saving Lives event on 22nd September 2016.

There is a complex, but significant, relationship between alcohol consumption, suicide and self-harm. Alcohol use is associated with completed suicide and self-harm in the short term – with over 50% of cases of suicide, and hospital treated self-harm, occurring in the context of alcohol use (Ness et al., 2015; Sher, 2006). In the longer term, individuals who are alcohol dependent are more likely than those who are not to die by suicide (Hawton, Casañas i Comabella, Haw, & Saunders, 2013; Sher, 2006). A conference, organised by Alcohol Concern Cymru on 22nd September 2016, dedicates a whole day to exploring this issue.  As part of this event…

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Updates – Final Report

The final report for the project is now available on Alcohol Research UK’s website.

There is also a shorter Alcohol Insight available online and for download, in the same place.

Image Alcohol Insight

I’m working on a number of papers which will develop the findings and analysis further, and will be presenting some of these at an event in Swansea, for Alcohol Concern Cymru in September – Saving Lives, Alcohol and Suicide.

Scottish Alcohol Research Network/Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, Postgraduate and early-career symposium

Upcoming talk presenting findings from Alcohol Stories:

Alcohol, self-harm and suicide among men: a qualitative exploration , at the Scottish Alcohol Research Network/Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, Postgraduate and early-career symposium. This event will be held in Edinburgh on 18th April. It is free to attend, and you can still register for tickets here.

This is the abstract of my talk:

There is a complex relationship between alcohol use, self-harm, and suicide. It is thought that higher rates of alcohol use among men may partially explain men’s greater risk of suicide. Men in mid –life (35-54), from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are at greater risk of alcohol related harm and suicide. There has been limited qualitative engagement with the accounts of men themselves regarding the potential relationship between alcohol use and suicide, despite both having rich social meanings and cultural histories.

This paper reports on a sociological study which piloted the use of life-story methods among a group of men who had experienced self-harm (suicidal, non-suicidal or of uncertain intent). The sample was aged between 38 and 61, and reported diverse experiences with alcohol: three described minimal/no problem drinking; four were abstinent but reported significant problem drinking in their past; three indicated that they were currently drinking in a hazardous manner. Interviews addressed alcohol use across the lifecourse, as well as eliciting talk about wider aspects of men’s lives: work, relationships, health, leisure pursuits.

Several dominant narratives emerged in accounts of the relationship between alcohol use and suicide. Alcohol was framed as an important part of planning ‘successful’ suicides – serving to enhance ‘courage’. Alcohol was described as a largely ineffective method of managing isolation, boredom, loneliness, low self-esteem and depression. At the same time, alcohol use was framed as a normal, mundane aspect of Scottish culture – particularly for men. This feature made it hard for those who had identified having a ‘problem’ with alcohol to balance their health and social life.


Turning the light on male suicide

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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.

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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.

Cross posted with: CRFR October Newsletter; and Mind the Bodies

Based on a paper given at the Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, August 2015

Further information/support: Samaritans; CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably).

Male suicides rising: exploring the role of alcohol and community support

Mind the bodies

This is a very much a ‘work in progress’ blog – reflecting on recent statistics on suicide in the UK, and thinking through how this relates to issues I am addressing in a new research pilot project (cross posted to the CRFR Blog).

New figures released by the UK Office for National Statistics show that suicides among men have risen, with levels now the same as in 2011 – a potential reversal of what had been a downward trend. Rates among younger men are often highlighted, since suicide in men aged 15-29 is the leading cause of death. These latest figures show that suicides among older men, aged 45-59, are now higher than any other age group.

guardian stats suicide rates

[Image from The Guardian]

I am currently at the start of a pilot project, funded by Alcohol Research UK, which is using biographical methods to study the life-stories of men…

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