Male suicide is at its highest rate in almost a decade. Although more women attempt suicide, the number of actual suicides amongst women is much smaller because in general women use less violent methods to kill themselves and therefore do not succeed as often.
So what might be going on – why are increasing numbers of men killing themselves?
We have just come out of what therapists sometimes refer to as “Crisismas”. Christmas and New Year is often a difficult time of year for many people and along with a rise in gym membership and a desire to lose weight and become healthier, a lot of people enter therapy.
In the past week I have been consulted by five new patients in my adult clinic, all of whom are struggling with family and relationship issues which have been exacerbated by the contradiction of what is suggested we should experience through the Christmas break, and what we actually experience with marital discord, family arguments, rejection, disappointment and a sense of crisis in despair.
Barristers I know suggest that January and February is their “peak season” with the highest number of their clients consulting them to begin the process of separation and divorce.
Are we in a double or triple dip recession? I am not sure anymore, but the economic recession has a direct impact on the weakest members of our society who are “closer to the edge”, so that unemployment, rising living costs and anxiety will impact on emotional wellbeing and mental health.
It is obvious that the very weakest members of our society our children, which is why Place2Be is so important. Children have no power and their situation in the recession with rising poverty and deprivation is invariably made worse.
However, as these dismal male suicide numbers suggest, there is another vulnerable group in our society. From a clinical and health perspective, to be born male is to be in a ‘high risk’ group. From birth to death, to be male is to be vulnerable. From the risks of miscarriage as a foetus to a wide range of special needs such as autism, to school exclusion, educational failure, alcohol dependency, substance misuse, suicide and early death, males outnumber females by three to one.
In suicide, men are three times more likely to kill themselves than women.
My own experience suggests that the way our society socialises and educates our children is a significant factor in why women seek help and men die when they are troubled or struggling with their lives. The familiar cliché about the British ‘stiff upper lip’ does not serve boys and men well since they often feel isolated and struggle to share their problems in the way that girls and women often do.
Boys often find it difficult to express emotions in words and suffer from alexithymia (without words for emotions). There are cultural expectations that to be male is to be powerful, self-reliant and competitive, and that vulnerability is shameful and weak. Indeed when I work with some male patients I do not ask them what they feel but rather what they think about something, thereby eliciting how they actually feel.
It is my belief and experience that if we are to address the mental health needs of adults, we need to start fostering emotional resilience when they are children. Emotional intelligence needs to be encouraged and made accessible to all children and Place2Be is highly successful in working with boys thorough counselling, Place2Talk and group work to address their feelings. By encouraging boys to develop a respect for their emotional experience, we can to help them learn that sharing their troubles or feelings can lead to finding solutions or emotional relief. We need to encourage them to take their emotions seriously to take the stigma out of feeling troubled or worried.
From a clinical and health perspective, males are definitely the weaker and more vulnerable sex and we need to encourage boys and men to adopt the skills and emotional intelligence of girls and women. If we want to address adult male desperation and potential suicide, we need to educate boys from a young age to become emotionally intelligent and therefore emotionally resilient. If you are feeling worried stuck or desperate – tell someone – talk about it – share – find a way out.
Dr Stephen Adams-Langley, Regional Manager at Place2Be has practiced as a psychotherapist and counsellor for 20 years, working with children, young people and adults.